Social media is ‘godsend’ in India crisis
NEW DELHI — Rajni Gill woke up with a slight fever in mid-April, the first warning that she had COVID-19. Within a few days, she was breathless and nearly unconscious in a hospital.
Desperate to arrange plasma treatment for Gill, a gynecologist in the city of Noida, her family called doctors, friends, anyone they thought could help. Then her sister posted a plea on Facebook: “I am looking for a plasma donor for my sister who is hospitalized in Noida. She is B positive and is 43.”
The message, quickly amplified on Twitter, flashed across the phone of Srinivas B.V., an opposition politician in nearby Delhi, who was just then securing plasma for a college student. He deputized a volunteer donor to rush to the blood bank for Gill.
“The administration and systems have collapsed,” Srinivas said. “I have never seen so many people dying at the same time.”
“Mine and my team’s work may be a drop in the ocean — but a drop nevertheless,” he said.
With India’s health care system overwhelmed by India’s unprecedented COVID surge, which is bringing more than 400,000 new cases and thousands of deaths each day, desperate relatives and friends of the infected have resorted to sending SOS messages on social media. And many of those calls are being answered.
Some people need medical oxygen, which is nearly impossible to find in Delhi, the capital. Others are hunting for medicine that goes for high prices on the black market, or for ventilators that are exceedingly rare.
The pleas are reaching tech-savvy engineers, lawyers, nongovernmental organization workers, politicians, doctors and even tuk-tuk drivers, who have mobilized online to help the sick, some of them hundreds of miles away. Collectively, they have formed grassroots networks that are stepping in where state and national governments have failed.
It is a role that Srinivas, 38, has played before in times of crisis.
As the president of the opposition Indian National Congress party’s youth league, he has provided support after earthquakes and floods. He has worked to get textbooks to underprivileged children and medicine to people who couldn’t afford it.
Early last year, when the pandemic first struck and India locked down, Srinivas galvanized young volunteers across the country who distributed food for stranded migrants, along with more than 10 million masks. He now heads a team of 1,000 people, including 100 in Delhi, the center of the current outbreak.
“I have grown up on Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals,” said Srinivas, who aspired to be a cricket player before entering politics. “I cannot believe it that I am out here today, trying to help so many people.”
The cries for help on Twitter and Facebook started spreading “like wildfire” in early April, Srinivas said. He created the hashtag #SOSIYC so people could connect to his organization, the Indian Youth Congress.
His team advertises for plasma donors online, and 5,000 have signed up. He also enlists psychologists to counsel donors about the four-hour procedure.
India’s loose online aid networks rely on tools and techniques commonly used in marketing and other forms of messaging on social media. Families tag people with large followings or specialized skills who might be able to amplify their messages, while volunteer organizers use keywords to filter the flood of requests.
Abhishek Murarka, who works in finance in Mumbai, decided he needed to do more than retweet messages. He started searching for the terms “verified,” “confirmed” and “available” on Twitter to track down specific leads on COVID supplies. He has since posted an 84-second video explaining his techniques so that others can use them.
Hundreds of miles away, Praveen Mishra, 20, who runs a startup in the southern city of Bangalore, studied Murarka’s video and applied his own filters to search for beds, oxygen and medicine. He was able to get a particular medicine to a patient in Delhi after confirming that it was available in Hyderabad.
“Initially I felt very scared, that there are too many cases and that I will not be able to help at all,” Mishra said. “Now I am calling 20 leads per day and verifying their needs.”
Some people are tapping into resources around the world. Nikhil Jois, a technology executive in Bangalore, and his own team vetted charity organizations that supplied oxygen, food and sanitary napkins. He whittled his list down to just over a dozen organizations, some of which could accept international donations.
His team then asked several companies in India to link to the list. And he began emailing executives, investors and bestselling authors in the United States, asking them to give.