Ranjona Banerji: Questions on vaccination drive that media must ask

02 Mar,2021

By Ranjona Banerji


Yesterday, March 1, was a lesson of sorts for anyone who wanted to get vaccinated against Covid-19. It was a lesson also for anyone who believed in or relied on the media to provide correct and clear information about the next phase of vaccine rollout, this time for the general public.

All this while, the media had reported that everyone above the age of 50 would be eligible and that the way to do it would be through the newly developed CoWin app. Those below the age of 50 with co-morbidities would be next on the list. Some of these media reports came from government press conferences, others from separately researched articles. The government itself had a televised press conference where March 1 was announced as the date. Details would follow.

As the March 1 approached, details however remained scarce. And this is where I would pinpoint the first massive media failure. Instead of informing the public on why the details were missing or what the public had to look forward to, we had the same old information repeated in various forms.

We were also told that the CoWin app was shut down for the weekend to prepare for this March 1 launch. The fact that the vaccination drive for health workers was also stopped – which was unconscionable – was either glossed over or not reported.

Before the mainstream media could get to it, the usual “information” channels like Whatsapp were full of procedures, new rules on eligibility, lists of vaccination centres and more.

None of this information matched what had been said earlier, either at the press conference or in various media reports from when the vaccine rollout started in January 2021.

On the morning of March 1, there was chaos. The app did not work. Then via word-of-mouth you heard that the app was never supposed to work, it was always the portal which no one had ever mentioned before. In fact, several media outlets carried interviews with the app developers and various government functionaries and their fan clubs congratulated digital India for getting digitally superior and digitally prepared for everything.

The Ministry of Health issued a clarification in the middle of the day that it had never said the CoWin app was for the general public. Well.

The list of vaccination centres received via Whatsapp was wrong, how surprising. Many did not show up on the website after you registered, if you managed to register. Several had to issue clarifications. Several now very anxious senior citizens were told that there were no slots available until March-end or even July. Some of these messages were about vaccination centres that were not on any list.

The list of co-morbidities for the 45 to 59 age group was very confusing. No media outlet had reported on this age category. Repeatedly, the message was everyone above the age of 50. Also, within the co-morbidities, so far the media had informed us it was everyone with cancer, diabetes and so on. Now it turned out there were several qualifications and conditions attached to those co-morbidities.

It is entirely possible that those health reporters were left in the dark by the authorities. Several doctors on social media expressed their distress at the confusion and tried to explain the new co-morbidity conditions. My own doctor suggested that we wait since as he rightly pointed out, health workers themselves had not had their vaccines. The large hospital closest to us had not received the vaccines yet and was hoping to start by March 7.

As the day progressed, some channels did cover the confusion as did print and digital outlets.


Some questions remained up in the air. Whether you could choose between Astra Zeneca’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

(As an aside, here’s what’s happening in Brazil with Covaxin: https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-brazil-india/update-1-brazil-prosecutors-seek-to-stop-purchase-of-indian-vaccine-idUSL1N2KW2OK)


And more vitally, why a country which has successfully conducted large scale smallpox, TB and polio inoculation drives in the past, managed to bungle this up so badly. Was it the stated reliance on the digital aspect? Was it the enormous desire to win the optics and forget about the ground realities?

Because on cue, all some TV channels were interested in were those who had easy walk-in jabs. And mainly of course, a mask-less Prime Minister rolling in and rolling up his sleeves for the cameras. What more could a nation ask for from its media, right?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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