India’s COVID-19 vaccine delivery programme shows how it is optimising its physical and digital assets

The country’s Covid-19 response example shows that ‘phygital’ is the path to take. That is perhaps the most important governance lesson from the pandemic

Hindol Sengupta January 17, 2022 21:30:14 IST
India’s COVID-19 vaccine delivery programme shows how it is optimising its physical and digital assets

A health worker shows a vial containing the Covaxin vaccine against the COVID-19 to be given to youths between the age of 15 to 18, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. AFP

With more than 1.5 billion vaccine doses delivered of the COVID-19 vaccine, India is marking a year since it started delivering the doses with 70 per cent of its 1.4 billion people fully vaccinated. This includes a high point of the largest number of vaccine doses administered in one day — 250 million on 17 September, 2021.

It was a task that was widely considered impossible with timelines of a decade — some even more — being suggested for the country to get anywhere close to near fully vaccinating its diverse population.

The speed of India’s vaccination drive is, then, an appropriate moment to consider what lessons this vaccination drive has had on our understanding of governance delivery.

This essay argues that it is a programme that needs to be studied for one major element, the combination of digital and physical strategies. There is a conceptual framework here that needs to be understood.

Governments have usually considered assets to be physical — therefore policymaking has focussed on land banks, on buildings and roads, on railway tracks and airports, on maritime zone rights, and airspace. But governments also have another asset these days, digital assets, in terms of digital infrastructure, and of course data.

In 2018, the World Bank published a report called the Changing Wealth of Nations, and the American think-tank Brookings produced one called The Public Wealth of Cities (2017), both of pointed to the fact that governments must utilise these resources to best serve the populations they work for, and to further raise funds to build infrastructure.

The wealth — and resources — that a nation possesses must be considered in dual, or hybrid, terms. Both physical and digital.

India’s vaccine delivery programme, which has covered around 70 per cent of the population rolling out more than 1.5 billion doses, is a case study in this, what I would call, ‘phygital governance’.

India’s vaccine delivery process required enormous mobilisation of physical resources, doctors, hospitals, testing centres — all of which grew multiple fold during the pandemic. The number of ICU beds grew 45-fold and within a few months India, which did not make PPE kits before the pandemic, became one of the world’s largest manufacturers and suppliers. Even the Indian Railways converted thousands of empty wagons into COVID isolation wards.

On the ground, apart from doctors and nurses, around a million ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers or rural women healthcare workers reached the remotest parts of India to ensure vaccination and fight misinformation.

Hand-in-hand with this physical mobilisation, an unprecedented digital infrastructure was rolled out from the Aarogya Setu app to trace, track and monitor, to the vaccination certification programme which has delivered tens of millions of vaccine certificates within minutes directly to mobile phones.

India’s vaccine certification programme today is one of the fastest and most efficient methods of providing vaccine certification in the world, and it has shown how technology could be applied at scale to simplify complex processes even at a time of great crisis.

Such a certification programme of course is built on the India Stack which uses a combination of digital identification and mobile phone ubiquitous-ness to provide access to information which is critical to the citizen and which only the government can provide. The key here is to ensure that the right information goes to the right person without any errors and the Indian experience during COVID-19 shows that such a system can be built, scaled up and deployed if the fundamental infrastructure already exists.

It also shows that the challenges that countries increasingly face need this ‘hybrid’ delivery model to counter them — only physical or only digital pushback alone would not be enough to resolve the issue.

This model needs — in equal measure and importance — both the digital and the physical part. The problems that countries face — and the resources that they need to deploy — are increasingly becoming more and more difficult. This will only worsen as global warming brings up unexpected scenarios that would be hard to manage using traditional government response frameworks.

India’s COVID-19 response example shows that ‘phygital’ is the path to take. That is perhaps the most important governance lesson from COVID-19.

The writer is a multiple award-winning historian and author. The views expressed are personal.

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