You know that feeling when you reach the top of the roller coaster and think to yourself “This isn’t so bad after all!”? That was most of us in March when the health minister asserted that “The situation was under control”, and we were getting ready to exchange the unmute button for anxiety-ridden conversations.
And then we plunged. Forget the seatbelts, the rails themselves tore apart as we fell into a ‘Final Destination’ like a chaotic nightmare. Call it the second wave or a tsunami, the country drowned in cases as the riptide of lack of resources pulled us under. Oximeters in hand, we gasp for our breath as frontline workers keep doing all they can to save us.
To save us from Corona. To save us from apathy.
But what can a doctor do when there are no beds, no oxygen, and no necessary medications?
Among all the lifeboats thrown to people during this time, social media- Twitter and Instagram have surprised me the most by emerging as unofficial helplines.
Twitter During the Pandemic
My short experience on Law School Twitter has been very wholesome and encouraging.
I’ve met seniors I should’ve met on campus; had a silly discord wedding; seen cursed images and comments no person should ever see; saw too many SSR-related tweets trending (#SSR_wrong_height_recorded); pontificated about useless things; and more…
But as the second wave hit us, my timeline transformed. Splashes of heartwarming instances of kindness and humanity appeared amidst a sea of heartwrenching cruelty by the powerful. The screams of help echoed all through Twitter.
It started with requests for plasma for convalescent plasma therapy and rapidly turned into requests for almost everything else. From medicines: Remdesivir injections, Fabiflu, etc, to oxygen and beds- ICU, ventilator, etc. SOS calls only increased in number and the urgency and desperation multiplied.
It was shocking to see accounts with the much desired blue tick mark ask for resources.
Even the privileged were helpless.
Veteran journalist Vinay Srivastava’s unheard cries for help on Twitter before his inevitable demise was just one of the first in a long line of similar instances. (Link here)
Answering the Calls for Help
But there are people doing all they can to ensure resources reach the ones in need. Most SOS tweets tag Srinivas BV of the Indian Youth Congress, Sonu Sood, or the Indian Civil Liberties Union(ICLU), who are all assisting patients in finding life-saving resources. Even foreign embassies have reached out to the Youth Congress to arrange oxygen cylinders for them!
Rikit Shahi, a fourth-year student of Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad, told me that his volunteer work- which began during the Delhi riots relief work, has been ongoing. When he put out a simple tweet stating that he’d be happy to run errands for people in isolation, it reached a much larger audience than he had anticipated. (Link here)
He averages about 4 deliveries per day, but the deliveries have taken a backseat. Now, he gets all sorts of requests for plasma, oxygen, beds, etc and coordinates with the ICLU to fulfill them. He told me about a heartwarming incident where he helped a pregnant woman get a bed and he’s now invited to the baby shower!
Just like Rikit, there are students and volunteers all across the country, verifying and collating resources and leads and updating them on a timely basis or even tweeting them and putting them up Instagram stories. A smile erupts on my face when I see tweets thanking someone for helping them reach necessary resources.
Several new Instagram pages solely dedicated to collecting resources have also popped up.
Twitter has an advantage here because one can easily search for leads using keywords. Bots like COVID-Twitter have been made to generate leads based on the city, requirements, and so on.
The Other Side of Help
Even the most recent tweets often seem to have exhausted resources. This can be an extremely excruciating experience for families and loved ones desperate for a bad or an oxygen cylinder.
Monish Dixit from NLSIU 25’ says almost 90% of leads he tries to verify are either fake or exhausted. While most people on the other side of the phone are kind and understanding of the situation, some are not! An oxygen cylinder dealer from Kanpur that Monish called started spewing vile abuses and death threats at him and even tried to video call him again and again for unknown reasons.
Unfortunately, this was not a solitary incident. Another Twitter user was verbally abused after calling a prospective vendor and kept receiving calls even after blocking the number. And in many other instances, women who have given out their numbers either to receive help or even offer help have received vulgar messages, NSFW pictures, porn clips, and a barrage of video calls from men. A Twitter user who had made her Instagram account public to make sure the resources she posted reached everyone, found that her Instagram pictures had wound up on NSFW subreddits.
The whole world may have come to a halt but creeps and perverts are working overtime!
Another issue with resource verification has been that a huge number of people- verifiers and families of patients are constantly calling vendors and chemists to verify leads and this has led to them inevitably switching off their phones.
Fake Leads and Fraudsters
There has also been the problem of fake leads and numbers. Rikit has been compiling a list of fake leads that have been doing the rounds on social media. Unreachable, unverified numbers and lists of plasma donors that the donors themselves have no idea about are rampant. Sharing unverified resources just for clout and a couple of retweets seems to be the norm. There are also vultures lurking amidst us who are trying to exploit the desperation of helpless patients. Several fake Remdesivir rackets have been busted by the police and some sell them at exorbitant prices. And then there are fraudsters who receive money on promising the delivery of goods and then go off the grid. Nidhi Suresh talks of losing 25000 Rupees to a scammer who promised an oxygen cylinder to them but became unreachable once the money was paid. It is highly plausible that social media may indeed be pushing people in dire need of resources into the hands of such vultures.
Don’t lose all hope in humanity yet though! Communities have stepped up to provide ‘Oxygen Langars’ and free oxygen cylinder service. People on social media are coming forward to help with MS applications, professionals are offering free therapy sessions and consultations, offering home-cooked meals for no money or at minimal prices, and helping you with your assignments. Some are even volunteering to take care of our four-legged friends!
But resources are still depleting at a rapid pace. On any given evening one will see tweets saying “No ICU beds in X city! All leads exhausted”. Hospitals plead with the government and concerned officials on Twitter–asking them to make sure hundreds do not die because of depleting oxygen.
Sometimes I feel the pyre searing through the screen, as the bodies pile up, waiting for their turn to burn.
Requests for resources have turned into requests for hearse vans and help with cremation.
Another volunteer Anaan talked to me about four patients who were relying on her friend and her for ICU beds. There were none available that night and all four passed away. While this incident took a huge hit to her mental health, she still carries on. “I cannot leave my phone for a second”, she said as she feels responsible for all the requests that come to her and tries to do everything she can to help people.
But, she does not post resources publicly anymore. Why? There’s fear in the air and masks don’t deter it! Although the Delhi police have denied it, several volunteers have come forward to say that the Police have asked them to stop sharing resources. It was also shocking to see the Amethi Police book a case against Shashank Yadav who had put out a tweet asking for an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather. This took place a few days after UP CM Adityanath asked officials to book ‘anti-social elements’ under the National Security Act and Gangster’s Act for spreading ‘rumours’ on social media and trying to ‘spoil the atmosphere’.
Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it. But here, all you get is Jail!
Miles to Go
However, the percentage share of active Twitter users in India is only a little over 1%. A majority of resources found online are for metropolitan cities and even with a significant amount of exposure, it is still difficult to find resources for towns and rural areas and with the second wave seeping into our villages, Twitter will be of little help.
Some influencers and celebrities like Kusha Kapila, Rohan Joshi are trying their best to amplify resources and SOS calls. Sunil Chhetri chose to make good use of his 1.6M Twitter following and has handed over his account to volunteers to make sure resources reach a wider audience.
On the other hand, celebrities with an exponentially larger following, who could put their celebrity status to good use have been tweeting symbols that even Robert Langdon would not be able to decipher!
In the words of Anas Tanwir of the ICLU, “This is not even our mandate, and yet here we are.” This is the sentiment that is being echoed by everyone doing all they can to help the ones suffering. The pandemic has been raging on for more than a year now. It should not be up to Twitter and social media to help people find necessary resources, but then again, here we are!
As said on the Ezra Klein show, Twitter is both indispensable and dystopian.
Dystopian because anyone who is malicious could post potentially harmful information and it would end up getting amplified.
Some days ago after seeing an SOS tweet for an ICU ventilator bed in Bengaluru, I tried to call the hospitals that the government website showed they were available in. An hour later, I came out the other side stressed, saddened and shaking from all the calls which yielded nothing. All the volunteers who have been doing it day in and day out and amplifying resources and SOS messages have my utmost respect and gratitude.
Twitter is indispensable because it genuinely helps people put out their needs and concerns and connects them to the right people. Indispensable because it helps many every day. Indispensable because it reminds us that this is not something we should be doing, and to hold the ones who are accountable.
For now, all I can do is go back to Twitter, retweet the SOS tweets that break my heart, and whisper to myself: Twitter, do your thing.
If you want to write for us, or share a story, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org