After COVID-19 vaccinations opened up for the 18-44 age group in India, appointments via CoWIN portal were made mandatory. Getting appointments has been difficult from the beginning because slots get booked up in short order. So, people turned to scripts to check the site automatically, and to bots on Telegram to send alerts when appointments are added to the portal. Although Telegram did not share data about the number of downloads it has seen during this period (the company replied to a request for information by saying that it does not release segmented data), trends about its position in the download charts captured by third-party trackers show that the messaging app got a big boost in users in the country right at the time that vaccinations for people under 45 opened up, showing that this could be one reason why its download rankings have improved recently.
According to data shared with Gadgets 360 by popular app tracker App Annie, Telegram went from 19th position in mid-April to number one in India across all categories by mid-May for iOS users. On Android, it was number 33 on April 29, just after registrations for CoWIN started. As the Telegram bots became better known through media coverage, its rating also shot up and by May 2, it had peaked at the number 20 position in India (in the overall category) on Google Play.
Similarly, data from third-party tracker Sensor Tower shows that after peaking in India in January, Telegram had dropped to the 48th position overall on Google Play by March 31. On April 28, it was still at 39, but by May 14, it was at number 25 overall in India. In the communication category, according to Sensor Tower, Telegram has gone up from the number four position to number two.
At the time, worried that WhatsApp-owner Facebook will start reading their messages, uers wanted to move to a more secure alternative. This time, people are turning to Telegram in the hopes that it can get them a vaccine shot. In a thoroughly unscientific survey, I saw that 18 contacts joined Telegram in January after the WhatsApp privacy notice. On the other hand, six joined in February, and only four in both April and March.
In contrast, eight people had joined in the first four days of May — and by May 14, that number is already 24.
Making the digital divide a vaccine divide?
Many people criticised the use of Telegram bots and tech tools to jump ahead in queues to get vaccinated, describing the process of getting an appointment as a hackathon.
There are multiple articles that have also highlighted how heavy reliance on the Internet is turning the digital divide in the country into a vaccine divide. Add bots into the mix, and there are reports of people from Bengaluru travelling to nearby rural areas to get vaccinated while locals say they are left behind, raising questions about the fairness of the system.
None of this is Telegram’s fault. As the rules on who can, and cannot, get vaccines keep evolving, it’s not surprising that people are afraid about whether or not they’ll be covered and are willing to use whatever advantages they can get in order to secure a vaccination appointment.
In fact, through these Telegram bots and other alerts, the net of people who would be able to book appointments got a little wider — rather than being limited to just people who can use an API to write scripts.
Even so, to lessen the chances of misuse, the government went on to add new security features to the CoWIN platform as well. The API guidelines were updated, and the new guidelines say ‘the appointment availability data is cached and may be up to 30 minutes old.’
‘We don’t know if vaccines will last’
The rush for vaccine appointments can’t be the only reason that so many people are signing up for Telegram. But when we asked a number of the people who have just signed up for Telegram, all of them told us the same thing.
Each one of the users told us that they joined to sign up for Under45.in’s Telegram bot. All of them also asked not to be named, uncomfortable about potentially jumping the queue for a vaccine, yet feeling that there isn’t any choice.
“Promise you won’t judge me?” “Don’t know if the vaccines will last.” “Needed it for Under45.” “COVID updates.” These were the responses people gave when asked why they had signed up, before saying, “Please don’t put my name down for this.”
Apps and platforms like Under45, as well as platforms created by startups like Vaccinateme and Paytm’s Covid vaccine slot finder make use of an official API in order to help people find slots and get appointments in order to get their doses of the vaccine.
And while the number of people signing up for Telegram started off as a trickle, it has quickly become a waterfall, making India’s pandemic tragedy an unexpected growth opportunity for the messaging app.