“My brother is gone.”
Just after 11 p.m. on a Sunday in early May, this message signaled the end of a frantic 48-hour-long search for medical help for a friend’s brother in New Delhi, India. My partner and I had called dozens of phone numbers gleaned from Twitter threads and WhatsApp shares, and DMed strangers, trying to locate an oxygen cylinder or ICU bed.
When our friend first asked for help on the Friday, she had wanted information about funeral requirements for a COVID-19 death. At that time, her 69-year-old brother’s oxygen saturation level was around 40 (normal is 95-100), and given that the country’s health care system had buckled, she was prepared for the worst. Her brother was cremated according to COVID protocols two days later, but with his test results still buried in the overtaxed system, it wasn’t recorded as a pandemic death.
But make no mistake, this wasn’t a death caused solely by COVID; the death was because of the criminal negligence of the central government. My friend’s brother died because he was unable to access basic health care in the wake of an absent government. Had he been able to reach a hospital in time, had help from the right channels been available, he might well be alive today.
“Twitter becomes platform of hope amid the despair of India’s COVID crisis,” read the headline of a Reuters report on April 27. For weeks, a casual perusal of social media timelines in India has thrown up a litany of cries for help—crises ranging from watching loved ones gasping for breath on scorching hot summer days (above 104ºF in many places), to a critical lack of hospital beds, ICU access, oxygen, medication, and even food and shelter. Social media, often derided as a voyeuristic distraction, is now a lifeline in India.
Twitter in particular is where civil society—individuals, organizations, and nongovernmental organizations—meets those in need. The network is powered through intersecting timelines, a system of forwarding and amplifying, and SOS hashtags, along with mutual support and on-the-ground work of volunteers. In addition to finding, verifying, and posting information about where and how to access resources, these volunteers are also running helplines and arranging and distributing critical care and infrastructure that the government has failed to—such as oxygen cylinders, ambulance services, medication, and food and shelter. Others are setting up fundraising campaigns to procure equipment that would ordinarily be the state’s responsibility.
“I’ve used Twitter to find leads [for] oxygen cylinders or ICU beds,” says Apekshita Varshney, an urban development professional in Mumbai. She is in multiple WhatsApp groups that forward SOS messages to the right channels. Though the kindness of strangers keeps the network going, it is hardly a replacement for an absent health care system. “It’s frustrating,” Varshney adds. “You don’t know if the leads are verified, you don’t know if the person is out there to scam you.” Those who want to help are doing whatever they can, “but filtering through these leads is extremely strenuous, especially for somebody who is dealing with a patient in their own family.”
Journalist Deepika Gumaste also has social media to thank. In between looking after her parents who had tested COVID-positive—her mother having serious co-morbidities—and helping friends access help, she also wrote about oxygen cylinder scams. Twitter, she says, helped her “identify and get in touch with local [bureaucrats] and volunteers [which] allowed us to get help for critical patients.”
Enterprising IT folks have also created dynamic, searchable databases of the available aid in the form of websites and apps. Twitter Search for COVID is a simple search engine to scour Twitter for COVID-related resources in different cities, while Verified COVID Resources is an open, searchable database run by a team of volunteers from partner organizations. COVIDResources.in offers another database of statewide resources, run by a volunteer “team of strangers” brought together by the common goal of helping India through the crisis. Mutual Aid India is a self-described “ragtag” group of 30-odd volunteers amplifying fundraisers and other mutual aid.
Many of these efforts to provide aid are localized. They focus on providing direct support, including cooking meals for affected families in the neighborhood, or mosques and gurudwaras providing food, shelter, and in some cases oxygen. Some NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) have leveraged their own networks to offer support on a wider scale, using social media to amplify their reach.
Mercy Mission in Bangalore is a collective of more than 20 NGOs that came together in March 2020 after seeing horrifying videos from the U.S. and Europe. “We [didn’t] know what was coming, but if it [came] to India, [we knew] it’s going to be bad,” says founder Ali Shariff. Mercy Mission’s youth-driven volunteer force run a citywide helpline, an ambulance service with paramedics, a funeral service, and also help with oxygen procurement. While organizers are confident they are making a difference, there is no consolidated public data about the scale of aid being raised by NGOs, CSOs, and individuals, says Shariff.
In a country so large, and so socioeconomically and culturally diverse, there can never be a single model of crisis intervention or solution. A social media-fueled emergency response system can only be a stopgap measure, which Twitter user @pseudo_sapiens spells out: “If you think that the chaos & COVID-related requests on Twitter given you an idea about the actual COVID situation; please remember that Twitter is only representative of a fraction [of Indians], it by no means provides any insight about the situation of those who are underprivileged.”
The lack of resources is most acutely felt by marginalized populations. Kalaimagal Arumugam of the Dalit Solidarity Forum, a nonprofit funded by members of the Indian diaspora in the U.S., which works on the ground in rural south India, says, “Fear rules in every sense, and COVID has made it worse.” The Dalit communities around her, she adds, are “like frightened lambs who are bleating, but there is no one to hear them.” The medical care provided by the government in the wake of the pandemic is substandard, she says, coupled with an absence of awareness and education for people to make informed decisions. As infections rise, “Dalits are being called upon to handle the bodies of those who have died of COVID-19 and provide cremation services… [without] being provided either money or food.”
Himanshu Kumar, an activist from the central state of Chhattisgarh who works with tribal communities (Adivasis), says that communities have been left unmoored. Migrant workers, who suffered inhuman conditions in the first wave, are once again facing hunger and destitution, more so in Dalit and Adivasi communities.
“You’d think that living in the 21st century, global supply chains are fairly efficient, and we can get anything from any part of the world in two days, but it’s been 25 days and we’ve not managed to solve… critical problems,” says Shariff, of Mercy Mission. “The lack of oxygen, lack of medicines, [shortage of] staff and resources… are really infrastructure challenges.”
As citizens, we are doing all we can, he adds, with aid pouring in from individuals, CSO funds from industries, and so on. But bureaucratic and legal challenges abound, and there is zero clarity from the government for citizens hoping to overcome those hurdles. Moreover, the public nature of asking for and providing help on public platforms has allowed existing scammers and black marketeers to take advantage of the crisis.
Even so, right now it is the only system that seems to be working in India. “[Our work is] in response to the need of the hour… as a reaction or response,” says Shariff. Many of these volunteer-driven, ad hoc efforts are unlikely to remain sustainable in the long run, but “what is more important is that by working together, civil society is forging ties… hopefully leading towards a better future.”
Payal Dhar is a freelance journalist specializing in science, technology, and society. They have been published in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate, IEEE Spectrum, Nature Machine Intelligence, Input Mag, Rest of World, and others. Payal is based in New Delhi, India, and speaks English, Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu. They can be reached via Twitter—their DMs are open.