S Anas Ahmed, J Venkatramu and Bhagwan Chowdhry
India is undertaking the world’s largest immunisation drive after the regulatory approval of two Covid-19 vaccines and a nationwide dry run. But many questions still remain unanswered on how the vaccines can reach people in each and every corner of the country irrespective of their socio-economic background. While there are experts who are addressing many of these questions, our experience from working on financial inclusion has brought an answer to our minds.
Inoculation is voluntary and after the frontline workers it will be done in phases based on an individual’s degree of need for inoculation and hence there will be a need for a mass registration to decide on who, when and where to inoculate. To do this the government has come up with an app and a website called CoWIN (details of which are still being fine tuned) where individuals can self-register or someone else can do it for them like an ASHA worker or a district administrator.
Given household level smartphone penetration is around 40% in India we estimate around 55 crore adult Indians would need help registering for the Covid-19 vaccine. Most of these 55 crore people will fall in one or more of the following categories: poor, illiterate, rural population, this population looks similar to the one Jhan Dhan Yojana was aimed at.
While ASHA workers and district administrators can certainly help in registering people for the vaccine they alone would not be sufficient for a quick and full registration which is a must for efficient planning and delivery of the vaccine.
India has around 3 lakh postmen, 1.55 lakh post offices and 8 lakh bank mitras or business correspondents located in all corners of the country and a postman visiting every village in the country to deliver postal and financial services. Most of these people already have smartphones and are at least moderately technologically savvy.
The process of registration includes filling in name, address, mobile number and some very basic health information followed by uploading a photo ID of the individual. This process is quite similar to opening a bank account, a process which the above mentioned agents have been doing for a while and hence can easily help people register for the Covid-19 vaccine.
Many of the people who need help in the registration will already be interacting with a postman, bank mitra or a business correspondent for accessing financial services and by delivering this crucial and urgent service these agents can build their customers’ trust in them and perhaps even attract new and previously unbanked customers. The government can provide a small monetary incentive for each registration the postmen, bank mitras and business correspondents perform to cover their expenses.
Once the registration is complete, based on the eligibility criteria the government would notify people via SMS the date, time and location of the inoculation. Here we propose the government considers the use of automated voice call instead of an SMS for the illiterate population to notify them of the inoculation details. This is because research conducted by the Digital Identity Research Initiative (DIRI) at the Indian School of Business (ISB) has shown that even reading SMS alerts from their banks remains a challenge for a significant population.
Also, it is important that these details actually reach the person on time for the immunisation drive to be efficient and for people to not go back to the postmen, bank mitras and business correspondents to read the SMS for them. Indeed, DIRI in partnership with India Post Payments Bank (IPPB) is developing a voice based notification system for checking bank balances.
The basic requirements of health inclusion are very similar to the ones needed for financial inclusion. The infrastructure already in place for the latter could be easily utilised for a successful and equitable mass-scale vaccination.
S Anas Ahmed leads the Financial Inclusion vertical at DIRI at ISB. J Venkatramu is the MD and CEO of IPPB. Bhagwan Chowdhry is a Professor of Finance at ISB and Executive Director, DIRI
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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