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Fintechs lend a hand in COVID fight, take on vaccine hesitancy in villages

Using their wide network and technology, finetch firms are helping villagers register on CoWin. Their banking correspondents are spreading awareness and also encouraging people to get vaccinated against coronavirus

June 27, 2021 / 09:00 AM IST
Rumours and lack of awareness in rural areas is coming in the way of India’s COVID vaccination drive. (Image: AP)

Rumours and lack of awareness in rural areas is coming in the way of India’s COVID vaccination drive. (Image: AP)

Deepak Jatav is a one-man bank for scores of people in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district who are not part of the banking system.

An adhikari, or a banking correspondent, for fintech firm Spice Money, Jatav, equipped with a biometric scanner, helps customers make cash deposits and use an Aadhaar-enabled payment system for withdrawal, loans, bill payments and sending money to family.

In the last few weeks, his role has expanded—to that of a vaccine evangelist. He is now the go-to person for anyone willing to take a coronavirus shot.

Outside his shop, Jatav has pasted a photograph of him taking the first jab. Before he carries out a transaction, he has one question for each of around 150 customers he gets in a day.

“Even before asking them about whether they want to send or receive money, I now ask about their vaccination status. Many are hesitant, they have neither got jabbed nor are willing to take the shot,” Jatav told Moneycontrol over the phone.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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The government has set an ambitious target of getting most of India’s 1.3 billion people vaccinated against the dreaded virus by the year-end. The second coronavirus wave that sent daily infections and deaths to record highs has only added to the urgency.

Rural areas, which escaped the worst of the first wave, have been hit hard this time but vaccine hesitancy and lack of awareness are high. There is a lot of misinformation about vaccines—there are rumours of shots causing infertility, sickness, or even death.

The vaccine evangelists

“I try to convince them by giving my example. When they agree, I help them get registered on CoWin through the Spice Money app. I even get them slots for the same day, when possible,” Jatav said, referring to the online platform set up by the government to anchor India’s vaccination drive.

Kiran Sunil Gaekwad, a banking correspondent for PayNearby, another fintech firm, is doing his bit to get people vaccinated in Ozar village in Maharashtra’s Nashik.

In the last 40 days, he has registered around 250 people on the CoWin app using the PayNearby infrastructure. Most visitors to his shop are men and only two in 10 registrations have been for women.

Rajesh Sipolia, another Spice Money adhikari in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh, said his customers were willing to be vaccinated but were not tech-savvy.

Though early this month the government said that CoWin registration was not mandatory, walk-ins don’t always work.

If too many people land up at the vaccination centre and there are not enough doses, they are asked to come again. Many do not, said Sipolia. If there are too few people, vaccine wastage is an issue.

Sipolia has not been vaccinated though he wants to. "There was an issue about time availability as well as vaccine availability but I will get the shot soon," he said over the phone.

Sipolia has helped shopkeepers, drivers and daily-wage earners, many of whom do not have smartphones, in the district get registered. “I have put up a board outside my shop, saying they can get registered here for the vaccine for free,” he said.

Jatav, Gaekwad and Sipolia have emerged as key links in India’s vaccination drive launched on January 16. Around 5.43 crore people, or less than 4 percent of the population, have been fully vaccinated, so far, while nearly 23 percent have got the first dose. India has approved three double-dose vaccines —Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik, for emergency use.

For the drive to pick up, gaps in availability and vaccine hesitancy have to be addressed. The Centre has once again decided to procure vaccines and give them to states to plug shortages but tackling hesitancy in times of “infodemic” calls for a community effort.

PayNearby was doing “app within app” redirection to allow customers to register on CoWin, MD and CEO Anand Kumar Bajaj said.

“That we could help the tech-challenged in getting vaccinated struck us when the government opened vaccines for the 18+ age group some weeks back,” said Bajaj. The government expanded the vaccination drive on May 1 to include everyone above 18.

They realised that large crowds could walk in without registration and there could also be a mismatch between vaccines available and people willing to get jabbed, Bajaj said.

“This is when we came up with the app-in-app redirection feature. We have also helped some other fintech companies in developing this feature on their respective apps,” he said.

The company was not paying its digital pradhans (banking correspondents) extra to assist customers in getting registered on CoWin, he said.

PayNearby has also allowed merchants to register in 10 Indian languages, helping those not conversant with English.

Others, too, are chipping in. India’s biggest digital payment firm Paytm has not only enabled registration for shots but is also helping customers find a slot near their location. Mumbai-based Fino Payments Bank merchants are providing access to the CoWin portal through customers’ smartphones either directly or through its Fino Mitra or BPay apps.

Aiming for the last mile

In the last 15 days, the Spice Money app got more than two lakh clicks, with redirection to CoWin, founder Dilip Kumar Modi said. More than a lakh of the five lakh merchants on the platform had used the feature in the last few weeks.

“The next step is improving the experience for customers since we have now got access to protected APIs (application programme interface) on CoWin. We have started work on this and the idea is to enable people to input in multiple languages, track bookings on the CoWin platform. Our teams are in the process of studying API documents,” he said.

The government has micro plans at the district level and Spice Money wants to be a partner in planning and working with gram panchayats as well as accredited social health activists, or ASHA workers as we know them.

“There is a lot of misinformation and lack of information/motivation to get vaccinated. We will use the people interface through our lakhs of local merchants already on the platform to fight this,” Modi said.

Spice Money adhikaris would work with ASHA workers in villages, he said. As they work at the ground level, ASHA workers, who are part of the National Health Mission plan and are a bridge between the community and the public health system, can convince people to take the jab.

“We want to become part of micro-planning of the government through social mobilisation and last-mile engagement. Soon, Spice Money may get volunteers to work with panchayats to convince people to get the jab,” Modi said.

Coming together of fintechs, which have the technology and a wide base in rural areas, ASHA workers, who enjoy the trust of the community, and gram panchayats that wield considerable influence in their areas could be the booster shot that the vaccination drive needs.

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Sindhu Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Delhi who writes on a range of topics in business and economy.
first published: Jun 27, 2021 09:00 am
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