In India’s COVID-19 Crisis, Social Media Does What Government Won’t

A health worker collects swab samples from the passengers for the COVID-19 coronavirus screening at a bus terminal in Amritsar on May 19, 2021. (Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images)

Ramya Srinivas felt anxious when the second wave of coronavirus hit India. She wanted to do something but obviously, stepping outside to assist wasn’t an option. So, she started volunteering with the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU), where she signed up to help verify the leads she saw on social media about hospital beds. Though this work was rewarding, it was also taxing for her mental health. “There have been instances where someone called and requested an ICU bed because their oxygen level was really low, or they had critical health conditions,” she says. “But by the time I found a bed for them, the patient had expired.”

India’s second coronavirus wave picked up in February 2021, with the cases increasing rapidly to an average of about 10,000 infections a day. Needless to say, with no governmental regulation and public complacency, the situation worsened in April, with India breaking global records for daily cases. According to data from John Hopkins University, nearly 7 million cases were reported in the month of April, and India has reported more than 400,000 new cases in the month of May. These figures are staggeringly more than the 19 million cases India recorded during the entire pandemic. But experts believe the numbers can be even higher as cases are often underreported or COVID-19 is mistaken for a different illness.

All major Indian cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Lucknow, and Kolkata, are experiencing a severe shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the far-right party currently ruling India, has come under severe international criticism for its mismanagement of the pandemic. The government began easing restrictions in September 2020 as it neared the end of the first wave, reopening malls and movie theaters and allowing citizens to hold sporting events, election rallies, and religious ceremonies that became superspreader events. Haridwar, an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, saw more than 4.8 million people congregate for Kumbh Mela, which occurs once every 12 years. Despite their best efforts to follow COVID protocols, the police couldn’t impose the operating procedures on the seers of akharas and the ash-smeared ascetics who had thronged the ghat in Haridwar on the two major bathing days.

To make matters worse, in early March, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan declared the country “in the endgame” of the pandemic. As bodies pile up in crematoriums and long queues of ambulances wait outside hospitals, people are relying on the mercy and help of strangers on the internet in lieu of government action. Social media, especially Twitter, has emerged as a COVID-19 helpline full of flood of requests for ICU beds, oxygen, and antiviral drugs like Remdesivir. Instagram and WhatsApp, too, have moved on from a place to post silly memes to a bulletin board for public service announcements, starting from donation drives to requests for critical information regarding medicines and hospital beds. There are approximately 687 million Internet users in India, making social media a huge resource for middle-class Indians looking to amplify their own needs or someone else’s. Twitter users have even begun using the hashtags #verified or #personallyverified on their tweets to let people know their leads and resources have been sourced and verified.

Even young people are chipping in during this crisis. Mahika Suvarna, a 17-year-old student, runs the popular Instagram page Desh ki Samasya. She and her co-admins call up the resources they find on the internet and verify them before posting on their account. “I have a group of four friends [running] the Instagram account, and we have assigned roles for each of us,” she says. “One of us verifies hospital beds, another verifies plasma donors, another verifies oxygen cylinders, and another sources COVID medicines.” Instagram accounts with thousands of followers, including Mutual Aid India, are using their platform to raise awareness about fundraisers for the more marginalized sections of society, such as waste pickers or migrant workers, who may not have internet access and therefore can’t seek help online. Mutual Aid India and similar accounts try their best to amplify grassroots organizations specifically helping these marginalized communities.

A medical help collective called COVID Citizen Action Group has served as an important source of information, with volunteers curating and updating a database that helps “match needs of #COVIDEmergency patients to availability of different resources.” Fridays For Future India is another citizen collective curating a nationwide repository that’s updated every 15 minutes. Online crowdsourcing has become a critical tool and the difference between life and death for some. Curated lists of distributors for oxygen cylinder supplies, medicine suppliers, and available hospital beds have been making the rounds on Twitter and Instagram. The desperation is unprecedented, and the lack of life-saving resources is forcing many middle-class Indians to cut out hospitals and middlemen and purchase oxygen cylinders from wholesalers directly. Some hospitals have even resorted to sourcing oxygen supplies from the black market. That’s the reason verification is so important: Ramya says there have been multiple fraud cases where oxygen cylinder suppliers charge exorbitant amounts or sell the cylinders to the highest bidder.

As bodies pile up in crematoriums and long queues of ambulances wait outside hospitals, people are relying on the mercy and help of strangers on the internet in lieu of government action.

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Sreshth Shah and his family work with hospitals on a professional level, and during the second wave, they decided to help people with early access to hospital beds. “The frantic family members would not be in a position to eloquently make a case for themselves with the hospital management since ICU beds are not easily available these days,” he says. “So we go with them and request the hospital through our professional connections to arrange beds for these people with critical health conditions.” But there’s a downside to the overcrowding of requests on the internet. I spoke to 10 people on Twitter who had posted for help on social media only to receive unverified leads, unresponsive phone calls, or deafening silence. They had to eventually rely on their personal networks to get the help they needed. For some, social media platforms have been a lifesaving tool but accounts with less than 1,000 followers are drowned out in the sea of similar people who also require COVID-related supplies. Searching for help offline often requires connections that some people might not possess.

Several others reported that they would call a number offered on the crowdsourced lists or helpful people on Twitter who could supply them with COVID-related essentials, but by the time they called, the supplies were gone. Because of the easy availability of the resources on social media, dozens would have reached the same number within minutes and exhausted the supplies, or the suppliers would switch off their phones because of the inexhaustible number of requests they received every day. Though these efforts are important, individual, volunteer-led coordination on social media can only help so much in the absence of any structured government action.

Barring two institutes, the Delhi-based Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, there was no attempt during the first wave of the pandemic to sequence COVID samples. This would have helped to detect the most dominant variants and to ascertain if any threatening mutations had occurred. It was only on December 21, after the U.K. variant was recorded in England, that the Union ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) formed the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium to do so. A group of 10 labs was granted funding and came under the purview of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), which reports to the MoHFW. In addition, the government should have ramped up the availability of beds, oxygen cylinders, ventilators in the last year. Their unpreparedness combined with India’s poor healthcare infrastructure in India led to this avoidable crisis. Considering the bleakness of the situation—262,000 people died from COVID last week—social media is a vital resource and will be for a long time to come.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Sreshth Shah’s last name. (05/25/2021, 8:56 a.m. PST)

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by Agnee Ghosh
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Agnee Ghosh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India. She is interested in the intersections of gender, environment, mental health, caste and class. Her work has appeared in Women’s Media Center, Vice India, The Globe and Mail among others.