Could apps help India manage its second Covid surge?

By Shirley Tay

Interview with Neeta Verma, Director General of India’s National Informatics Centre.

“I’m sitting in my apartment waiting to catch the disease,” The New York Times’ New Delhi bureau chief wrote in April. At the peak of India’s recent Covid wave, more than 400,000 cases were reported a day. Infections are only now abating.

The government has turned to apps to streamline everything from contact tracing to Covid-19 testing and vaccine distribution. India has always taken a “mobile first” approach to enhance the reach of its services, says Neeta Verma, the Director General of India’s National Informatics Centre.

GovInsider spoke to Verma to find out more about these apps, and how they’ve helped in the country’s pandemic response.

Covid-19 test results

India’s recent Covid-19 surge has highlighted the urgent need to increase testing rates. The government had to ensure labs were able to cater to the increase in demand, Verma says.

Labs needed accurate data on patients, such as their name, ID number and location, before test samples reached them. This information used to be collected via a paper form, which led to “delays in data entry” and “manual errors”, she adds.

India needed a new way to quickly and accurately collect test data and minimise manual errors, and the NIC built a cloud-based mobile app within 10 days to help.

The RT-PCR app, released last April, generates an electronic form that sample collectors can key data directly into. The completed forms are then sent to labs where test results are entered.

That has helped to avoid duplicated data and manual errors as labs no longer have to transfer data from a piece of paper, she says. Patients can also be quickly notified of their test results via text.

The BBC reported that India’s testing levels have been patchy across states, with insufficient tests conducted in highly populated areas where infections tend to be higher. But the app has helped in “streamlining” tests for the ones it has managed to administer. More than 156 million test samples have been collected across 22,000 collection centres, Verma says.

Coordinating vaccine distribution

Health experts say vaccinating its 1.3 billion citizens is the only way for India to avoid another Covid-19 surge. 45 million people have been fully vaccinated as of 1 June, equivalent to 4.7 per cent of the country's adult population, according to Reuters.

The government has purchased 300 million vaccine doses from domestic vaccine maker Biological-E. The vaccine is currently undergoing the third phase of clinical trials and will be available in the next few months, according to a statement by the health ministry.

India has built the cloud-based Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network (CoWIN) system to help it plan and monitor its vaccine rollout, says Verma. Users with a valid government ID can register through the Aarogya Setu contact tracing app, schedule an appointment, and search for the nearest vaccination centre.

Inoculated citizens will receive a certificate which indicates details on the type of vaccine received and when the next vaccination is due. The certificate will also act as a proof of vaccination in the event of travel, and has “built-in security features” to guarantee its validity.

But India will also need to deal with bots and profiteers. People have built automated systems that allow them to quickly find available slots. They then charged others who want to book appointments, tilting the chances of being vaccinated in favour of the rich and tech-savvy, reported Wired.

Moving to cloud and AI

Meghraj, the government’s national cloud platform, has accelerated the delivery of digital services, Verma says. Scaling existing IT infrastructure has become “much easier”, as approval, procurement, and installation of infrastructure used to take a lot of time.

The NIC is currently looking to host more softwares on the cloud. One such software has helped agencies build websites quickly without writing code - 628 districts have used the tool for their portals, Verma says.

The Centre is also creating open-source AI tools for agencies. It has built multi-lingual chatbots, face verification systems, and tools to train and test AI models, for instance.

The NIC will focus on developing mobile solutions that are available in citizens’ native language, Verma says. The nation has 23 constitutionally recognised languages, and this will “increase the adoption of digital services across rural populations”.

Rapid testing and vaccinating will cushion the impact of future infections. India hopes to speed up this process with apps to protect citizens from the deadly virus.