Future Tense

Amid an Unprecedented COVID Wave in India, People Are Begging for Help on Social Media

Two men in masks tape up signs that say, "BED FULL."
A security guard puts up a notice that beds are full at a private hospital in Allahabad, India, on Thursday. Sanjay Kanjia/AFP via Getty Images

When Delhi-based architect Akmal Hussain’s elderly uncle’s oxygen level fell to 70 (95 and above is considered normal), he posted on Twitter seeking help. “Urgent Help needed. Urgently needing a bed for Covid+ patient. My Number is +91 9810358996,” he wrote on April 17, tagging politicians and journalists with more than 200,000 followers.

Ankit Gupta, a social activist, saw Hussain’s tweet and reached out to him. He almost succeeded in arranging for a bed at the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital, but it fell through. The next morning, on Sunday, Hussain’s uncle’s oxygen level fell to 40. Gupta did everything he could to help, but the 82-year-old died the same evening, at home.

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Before their interaction on Twitter, Hussain and Gupta hadn’t even heard of each other.

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“In this crisis, it’s not the politicians, but people like Ankit who are running this country. He really tried his best to help me,” Hussain told me.

India’s second COVID wave picked up sometime in the second half of February, and within weeks, health infrastructure in the country has collapsed. On Tuesday, the country recorded 2,023 new COVID-related deaths and total COVID-related deaths were 182,553, according to the health ministry. On the same day, India had officially recorded 2,157,538 active cases and 294,337 daily cases. But experts widely believe these numbers to be huge underestimations.

Major Indian cities—including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Lucknow, and Kolkata—are experiencing severe shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, and plasma donors. India faced its first COVID wave in March last year, though the distribution was uneven and different states were hit at different points in time. The first wave peaked in September, but afterward, complacence set in, and the government failed to plan for another surge.

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The new wave is connected to a series of factors. For one thing, many virologists believe that new mutations could be helping the virus to spread more quickly. The government had reserved a bucket of money called the PM CARES funds for pandemic response, to which individuals and organizations had contributed, but the government has refused to disclose details of how the funds have been used. Large gatherings are still permitted, such as the Kumbh Mela, a multiday Hindu festival and pilgrimage in Haridwar where at one point more than 3 million people gathered to bathe in the holy Ganges River. Making matters worse, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been campaigning aggressively in election-bound states, holding rallies where millions gather flouting social distancing norms. Plus, by March, the Indian government had exported about 60 million doses of the COVID vaccines Covishield and Covaxin to countries including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Kenya, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Now citizens of India, which is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, are left stranded. So far, only a little over 1 percent of India’s total population has been fully vaccinated. On April 14, Time declared, “Officially, India Has the World’s Second-Worst COVID-19 Outbreak. Unofficially, It’s Almost Certainly the Worst.”

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Until the government can chalk out a clear plan of action, citizens are leaning on one another and on social media platforms to cope with the current crisis. “Go back to using Twitter as your lifeline because the Prime Minister has nothing to offer,” tweeted Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website, after Modi delivered a speech on Tuesday evening without addressing any critical issues and giving only empty reassurances.

Crematoriums and graveyards are overburdened. Ambulances are queuing up outside hospitals as COVID patients wait for hospital beds to free up. In some hospitals, three people are being assigned to a single bed while others are being accommodated on the floor. Many state government help lines are going unanswered. Prices for COVID-related medicines, oxygen cylinders, and hospital beds are soaring as demand increases, despite government efforts to cap rates. In the absence of information on availability of resources that the government should have gathered and disseminated, citizens have taken to Twitter and other social media platforms for help.

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Crowdsourced lists of plasma donors, oxygen cylinder suppliers, medicine suppliers, and hospital bed availability are being widely circulated on Twitter, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms.

“Twitter is everybody’s platform. It’s turning out to be really helpful for information and resource sharing. People DM me a lot, and I have a full-fledged team now that takes care of that,” Rais Shaikh, a Mumbai-based politician, told me.

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Safeer Mohammed, who has worked on several blood donation drives, volunteered during India’s first COVID wave to identify potential plasma donors. He is a core member of the team that started the Bangalore-based volunteering group Mercy Mission during the first wave.

“Collaboration is the most important fuel in a pandemic situation. You start working with people you don’t know and through formal and informal connections you create a network and process. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. You have WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook,” he told me.

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But many, even most, pleas on social media don’t get answered by a stranger. At least 20 people I spoke with said they had tweeted out requests for help, only to eventually find it through their own personal networks.

Sandeep Agarwal, a senior advocate in the Delhi High Court, was looking for an injection of tocilizumab, a monoclonal antibody being used to treat critical COVID patients, for his 63-year-old aunt, who had been admitted at the MGS Hospital. His niece tweeted on his behalf, asking for help. Agarwal said he even sent friends and acquaintances all over Delhi looking for the injection. “I even reached out to the top management at pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the drug and was told that all the stock has been given out to the government,” Agarwal told me.

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Several others I spoke with said that sometimes they would get a phone number via Twitter for someone who could supply them with COVID-related essentials, but by the time they called, it would be too late: Dozens would have already called the same numbers before them and exhausted supplies.

With supplies so exhausted, even common people are hoarding, especially oxygen. Ujjwal Basu, a 24-year-old supplier of oxygen cylinders in Kolkata, said he normally has 100 cylinders at his disposal. But when I reached him on Wednesday afternoon, he had only 10 in stock. He said patients who are not in immediate need of oxygen, especially the elderly, are hoarding oxygen cylinders for fear of not being able to access them should the need arise. Basu said he asks would-be patients for their oxygen levels and if they’re below 80, he’ll give them one. “If they don’t call me back in three days asking for a refill, I immediately understand they are hoarding. Then I politely request them to return it so I can give it to someone in need,” he told me. People normally do tend to give the cylinders back to Basu, he said.

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While Twitter has the advantage of quick accessibility and has been a great resource in this time of crisis, it has also been widely used to spread COVID-related misinformation. Priti Gandhi, in charge of social media for the BJP’s women’s wing, tweeted a video claiming that there were barely any people at the Kumbh Mela. The video was found to be fake.

Posters on Twitter are now adding “#verified” or “personally verified” while sharing contact details of plasma donors or oxygen cylinder suppliers. Others are adding a timestamp along with the “verified” label. Timestamps help people gauge if they have a chance at procuring the supplies. Thirty-five-year-old Priyanka Halduniya, a Delhi-based home chef who volunteered to deliver homemade food to COVID patients, said a stranger called her not to order food but to verify if her number was correct and if she was indeed supplying food, so that they could share her contact widely. Halduniya agreed—and is now inundated with up to 25 requests a day from self-isolating COVID patients.

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“I have two small children who are taking online classes in the pandemic. I have to take care of them, take customer orders every day, collect all the raw materials, and then cook for so many people. It’s a lot of work,” Halduniya, who gets help from her family, told me. She and her mother-in-law do the cooking, her father-in-law helps cut vegetables and kneads dough for the chapatis, and her husband makes all the deliveries. The entire family is involved in helping COVID patients.

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Some are proactively going onto Twitter to volunteer other types of services. For instance, a person in Bangalore offered to clean houses for free. Another offered to help with school and college assignments. Anjali Singla, a Gurugram-based counseling psychologist, put out a tweet offering her services pro bono to those in isolation and to front-line workers. Since then, she said, her Twitter DMs have been flooded.

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But she noted that the response has been far higher on Instagram, where younger people, who are often more comfortable talking about mental health, tend to be more active. “I take three to four cases pro bono every day. Many are SOS calls from people feeling suicidal, and from doctors and nurses facing shortages of drugs, PPE suits, and masks. They don’t know how to deal with so many dying patients and being away from their families,” she told me. And there’s no sign that the need for any of this support—medical supplies, food, psychological care—will end anytime soon.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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