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Amazon website says oxygen concentrator not essential item, puts spotlight on wonky algorithms in Covid times

E-commerce services like Amazon are having a hard time categorising items as essentials or not. Since only essential items are allowed in lockdown regions, people are not able to order some potentially life-saving items through the online portals.

twitter-logoSarthak Dogra | April 21, 2021 | Updated 14:36 IST

Highlights

  • Amazon website does not list oxygen cylinders or concentrators as essential items.
  • Hence it does not deliver such items to the regions experiencing a lockdown, as per the protocol.
  • Other basic items like masks and hand sanitisers are available under the essentials category.

As India goes through its most distressing phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus for all the citizens and entities has changed radically towards putting an end to it. One such industry facing steep challenges is that of e-commerce, which now bears the burden of getting the "essentials" to the masses. But in these troubled times, it might become hard to point out what can be considered as essential and what not.

Case in point, e-commerce majors like Amazon, are not able to clearly portray many essential items on their online portals. Some of these items include oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators and even oxygen masks.

A quick search on Amazon for any of these items reveals a list of vendors that have the products in availability. Amazon users can easily order items such as oxygen cylinders, concentrators, masks and more. The problem arises for people in areas with a lockdown imposed to curb Covid-19 spread.

With several Indian cities going into lockdowns, the e-commerce players are only authorised to deliver essential items to their customers in such regions. Since some much-needed items are not marked under the category, people are not able to order the potentially life-saving items even when they are listed online and are available for purchase.

Wonky algorithms to blame

(Screenshot: Amazon India website)

Note that the issue does not persist with all the Covid-19 related medical equipment. We searched the Amazon website for several items which are deemed as essentials for Covid-19 prevention as well as its remedial measures. We found that only the most basic items are listed under the essentials category, while some advanced but pretty obvious ones are left out of it.

As mentioned above, the ones that are not listed as essentials are portable oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, oxygen masks as well as PPE kits for safeguarding one against the Coronavirus.

The website, however, lists other items like N95 masks, hand sanitisers and disinfectants as essentials and is hence able to deliver these even in regions with an ongoing lockdown.

(Screenshot: Amazon India website)

The problem thus seems to lie with the algorithm that Amazon uses to mark items as essential. While it has been trained to identify masks and sanitisers as essentials over the past year of the pandemic, the need for oxygen cylinders and masks has skyrocketed only in recent times.

Amazon knows this. Earlier this week, the e-commerce major appealed to the Maharashtra government to allow deliveries of all items under lockdown. It mentioned it to be very challenging to define a static essentials list and that such essential items varied from one household to another.

(Screenshot: Amazon India website)

In such a case, the database should be rapidly updated with a renewed categorisation so people in dire need of such life-saving items can gain access to them. After all, such e-commerce services are, at present, the only way of getting essentials for people in some areas of the country.

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