The Korea Herald


In Korea’s online vaccine hunts, the tech-savvy and time-rich are often at ‘unfair’ advantage

Older generations, workers in poor conditions fear they don’t stand a chance

By Kim Arin

Published : June 28, 2021 - 17:34

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Smartphone screen shows a map of available COVID-19 vaccine slots in an area. (Yonhap) Smartphone screen shows a map of available COVID-19 vaccine slots in an area. (Yonhap)

Fifty-six-year-old Yun Mi-sun has never really felt like she was out of touch with the digital world. She has always been quite handy with the technology in her life: She knows her way around her brand new Samsung smartphone, and when she drives, she routinely relies on the car’s built-in navigation system. That was until she tried to book a leftover vaccine for herself.

Being in her mid-50s, she is not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine yet under Korea’s age-based vaccination scheme. Her turn does not come until August, but she wants to get vaccinated early to visit her mother-in-law who is bed-bound in a nursing home.

“I had no problem going on the portal. But, I didn’t know where to go from there,” she said. The virtual map indicating availability of extra shots at clinics seemed to always say “fully booked” every time she checked. She also struggled with issuing a “digital signature” required for the process.

“Later my son taught me how I could bookmark certain clinics on the map and then get alerted immediately when a slot opens up,” she said. “There was no way I could have figured this out on my own. I was clueless, and for the first time, I felt like a grandma.”

The online system for booking leftover vaccines -- resulting from appointments canceled by eligible people, usually in small numbers -- is ultracompetitive, and disproportionately favors the young, according to official statistics posted Thursday.

Slightly over 88 percent of 253,000 people who were able to get vaccinated ahead of schedule with the leftover doses so far were in their 30s and 40s. The remaining 11 percent were in their 50s. Since only the most widely supplied AstraZeneca vaccine was up for grabs, anyone younger than 30 was excluded over risks of rare blood clots.

In the latest development in the frenzied vaccine hunt, police said last week they were looking into social media posts from users who said they scored their appointments through a macro, or a computer program that automates repetitive steps.

Hwang Nam-hui, a senior policy researcher at Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said smartphone-savvy younger people having an edge over their older peers in online vaccine hunting was a “prime example of the digital divide leading to inequities.”

Korea is a country with exceptionally high digital literacy, even among older people, but about a third of people in their 60s and older considered themselves “digitally disconnected” in a survey by the institute. Within the cohort of 50-somethings, the trend tended toward two extremes. People with higher incomes and advanced degrees were likely to have more expertise with the internet and digital devices.

“This divide can be even more consequential in a pandemic, case in point being the online vaccine registration system,” she said. “The costs of not being tech-savvy should not be one’s health.”

There have been other times throughout the pandemic when those with limited information technology familiarity were left out of access and opportunities to essential resources, according to Hwang. In the early months of the pandemic, older people collapsing while waiting in line at stores for face masks made headlines, while younger people bought theirs online.

“Technology is evolving faster than many people can afford to get used to,” she said. “Policies should recognize these gaps and aim to bridge them.”

Despite the apparent imbalance, people younger than 50, who are collectively grouped as “less at risk” and at the very bottom of the priority ladder, will have to vie for vaccines online from August when their eligibility opens.

A member of a call center workers’ union, who is in his early 40s, said when he found out vaccine appointments were to be offered to people his age on a first-come, first-served basis online, he wondered if he would “stand a chance.”

He said he hardly had time to look at his phone at work. Even bathroom breaks were a “luxury” during busy hours. “But some people at other call centers have it worse. Their phones are taken away when they come into work for security and productivity purposes,” he said.

“For people like us, who would get vaccinated but whose jobs make it hard, the online sign-ups feel like the government is saying, ‘sorry, you’re on your own.’”

Chung Hae-joo, a professor at Korea University’s public health sciences department, said a need-based, rather than random, approach, should be adopted in public health services such as vaccine distribution.

“An open-for-all competition bears a facade of fairness, but it only works by overlooking the advantages that some groups -- in this case, the IT-competent -- have over others.”

By Kim Arin (