In the midst of a brutal second wave and a shortage of crucial life saving supplies, India’s COVID-19 patients and their loved ones are turning to social media to save lives.
As India set a grim global record with multiple daily case counts of over 400,000, its underfunded health system has struggled to handle the rising number of people in desperate need for help. Searching madly for hospitals with open beds, flowing oxygen and antiviral drugs, Indian citizens and even hospitals themselves have taken to Twitter to plead for supplies.
“SOS For Noida. Urgently need verified leads for Remdesivir for a patient who is critical. Hospital Doesn’t have it,” Twitter user Joy Das posted on May 2. Within minutes, his tweet had been shared a dozen times and responses began trickling in, pointing him towards sources with available supplies. Das, a Mumbai resident volunteering his time to help connect COVID patients to resources, told PBS NewsHour that Twitter has been a valuable tool saving lives during the pandemic.
Das, who works in advertising, tested positive for COVID-19 in late April. Currently self-isolating with minor symptoms, Das spends his days “trying to amplify the needs of the people and connect them directly to resources on the ground.”
Driven by what he describes as a “complete lack of accountability on the part of the government,” Das is one of hundreds of Indians taking to social media to request and provide help for COVID-19 patients.
Across the country, scores have volunteered to periodically call up hospitals and treatment centers, catalog available resources, and post the information online for anyone in need.
“Oxygen refilling available at Kripal bagh ashram, Model Town, Delhi. Directly go there with your cylinders. Verified at 11:30am.” Twitter user @TeamSOSIndia, one of many dedicated “hotline” accounts, shared on May 4. Using the hashtags “#covidresources” and “#covidhelp” on Twitter, hundreds of accounts claim to have verified the availability of resources at their local health centers, and direct individuals in need to the appropriate venue.
Volunteers are launching dedicated websites to fill in health system gaps and mitigate losses from the disastrous rise in infections. Covidfightclub.org aggregates leads from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Created in response to heart-wrenching social media pleas for plasma, the site plasmaline.in connects COVID-recovered plasma donors with recipients who currently have the virus.
“It’s so heartwarming to see people on Twitter going out of their way, and in many cases doing more than the government is, by directly targeting individuals in need,” Das said. “It’s been so useful to track down not only big picture stuff like hospital beds, oxygen tanks, but there are also people volunteering to prepare and provide meals for those in need during the pandemic.”
India’s government declared the pandemic virtually over just months ago, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claiming India “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively,” and boasting about vaccine exports during a virtual World Economic Forum address. Now the country is buckling under the domino effect of laxed restrictions, a slow vaccination rollout and new COVID-19 variants driving a deadly second wave.
Modi and his party are facing international scrutiny for holding several densely packed rallies ahead of regional elections in the state of West Bengal, citing a constitutional right to campaign. Modi’s party lost the election. Tens of thousands of worshippers gathered in India’s northern city of Haridwar for Kumbh Mela — a religious Hindu pilgrimage held every 12 years. Modi requested religious leaders to only symbolically celebrate the occasion, but the request came on the seventeenth day of a festival that lasts several weeks and draws millions of participants from across the country.
The disastrous consequences of premature loosening of restrictions are not lost on those witnessing the suffering firsthand.
“People are paying with their lives for politics,” Das said. “Last year when the pandemic hit, no one knew what to expect. So we can’t blame the government for all the lives lost that early on. But one year in, when we all know better and yet continue to allow mass political and religious gatherings, how could you not see this as the government’s fault?”
India’s Supreme Court told Modi’s government last month to come up with a national plan for the supply of oxygen and essential drugs to avoid continued shortages. Modi’s government previously had announced plans to build oxygen generators in 150 district hospitals across the country in October, about five months before India faced its second wave. But an investigation by Indian news agency Scroll.in found that by April, only 11 units had been installed and only five of those were operational.
“The story of India’s second wave is really driven by the demand and supply of oxygen,” journalist Vijayta Lalwani, who co-authored the investigative article, said. Lalwani and her colleague spoke to 60 hospitals across 14 states where the new oxygen plants were expected, only to find “complete confusion” at the hospitals and “an abdication of responsibility” on behalf of the government.
As international aid begins arriving — including from the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Bahrain — India is faced with the daunting task of adequately and responsibly distributing the supplies. Modi’s government is already being threatened with litigation over distribution inequities in regions where his party does not hold power, and there have been calls for the prime minister’s resignation.
READ: COVID-19 is out of control in India, where most vaccines are made. How did that happen?
Officials at India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare did not respond to a request for comment. Government data released in early April claimed India’s daily production capacity for oxygen was 7,127 metric tons, with consumption at 3,842 metric tons. Yet in the litigation over oxygen, the government told the High Court of Delhi that India’s oxygen consumption was over 8,000 metric tons per day by April 21.
The lack of supplies has prompted a black market for oxygen and antiviral drugs, and a demand for unproven treatments.
“The situation is absolutely devastating,” said Dr. Divanshi Khera, a resident at a private New Delhi hospital. “There are so many false medicines out there, and the ones that actually work are seeing serious price gouging.”
Khera described the harrowing conditions facing India’s health care workers at hospitals and medical centers across the country, where ambulances line up outside the door, and critical COVID patients wait inside for a bed as their loved ones flock to doctors and plead for access to supplies that are few and far between. “Sometimes, you just feel it in your bones that a patient is going to die, and there’s nothing you can do except watch it happen,” she said. “It’s simply heartbreaking, it makes you go numb.”
“It’s the only way India will come out of this — together.”
Social media “has been an absolute game changer in the past month,” she said, highlighting that even hospitals have been using it to get government officials’ attention in the hopes of getting more supplies.
“Fortis Hospital in #Haryana has only 45 minutes of oxygen left,” Fortis Healthcare, a private health company running hospitals across the country, tweeted on April 22, pleading with authorities “to act immediately and help us to save patients’ lives.” Shortly over an hour later, it confirmed online that a tanker had been dispatched to its location. About six hours after its original tweet for help, the hospital confirmed the receipt of oxygen.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely ridiculous that hospitals and people are having to beg for help online. But I’m so thankful for the young generation helping each other, and even the older people without access to Twitter or Facebook, in this time when the government has clearly been caught off guard,” Khera said. “It’s the only way India will come out of this — together.”
Volunteers posting life-saving information online may be putting their social media accounts at risk, especially if their posts, like Das’, are critical of the government. India’s government last month ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down dozens of unfavorable social media posts regarding its handling of the pandemic. The order specifically targeted dozens of critical posts from opposing politicians and posts that called for Modi to resign. Modi’s government said such posts used information and images out of context, and could incite a panic.
The social media crackdown is particularly jarring in light of digital divide in the developing country, where at least half the population of more than 1.3 billion lacks internet access. The divide is even greater in rural areas.
But volunteers like Das are determined to help however many people they can. While he believes the government must enforce sensible lockdowns and facilitate the distribution of critical supplies, he plans to continue doing whatever he can to help, digitally.
“India is seen as the ‘pharmacy of the world.’ How can we let our own people die? We’ve got to come together and do as much as possible to save lives and end the disaster of COVID, even if the best we can do is amplify the needs of people online.”