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India’s COVID-19 Tragedy Will Forever Remain Documented On Twitter

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Trigger warning: Mentions of COVID-19 trauma, death

“SOS – urgent. ICU BED needed in Delhi asap. Patient low on oxygen. Any verified leads, pls do share,” tweeted Saket Gokhale, quote-tweeting another user’s tweet, which is also a distressed cry for help. 

Right now, Indian social media is flooded with desperate pleas for help like these. In fact, there is such a massive influx of COVID-19 resource-related information on Twitter that it has become almost impossible to come across anything else on the website. 

Sport Complex In Delhi Converted Into COVID-19 Care Centre
Some states are running out of medical oxygen due to a surge in demand. (Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Bots have been created to make search enquires easier. But just a quick search of the words “plasma”, “oxygen”, “beds” and “remdesivir” reveal tweets by users with critically ill loved ones, desperate for any leads which might mitigate their pain and increase their chances of survival.

The healthcare system in India has collapsed. Overwhelmed by the latest coronavirus wave, hospitals all over the country are being forced to turn patients away. Delhi is running out of medical oxygen due to a surge in demand, and hospitals in the capital have to move to the Delhi High Court as a last resort to fight for their patients’ lives. 

Drugs such as Remdesivir and Tocilizumab are being black marketed at exorbitant prices. Healthcare professionals are being horrifically overworked under life-threatening conditions, with no respite in sight.

The country is seeing a terrifying coronavirus outbreak, with figures climbing to astronomical highs each consecutive day. The sharp increase in cases seems to have been triggered by the double mutant variant of the virus, hurling the country towards a health emergency at an alarming rate.

On 12 April, India overtook Brazil to become the second worst-hit country as it reported 1,68,912 cases. Since then, it has continued to report the highest one-day tallies reported anywhere in the world since the pandemic began.

Amidst this catastrophe, people have taken to social media as a last resort for help. Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp are flooded with requests for medical resources, and citizens worldwide have mobilised to help each other out. From arranging medical resources to providing food, people have taken it upon themselves to help out strangers begging for help online. 

In the absence of any streamlined COVID-19 helplines in the country, social media has now become the de facto source for COVID-19 related help. But despite people’s heartwarming efforts to come together and help each other out, this is no feel-good story; it’s a dystopian nightmare. 

Daily Life Amid Coronavirus Pandemic In India
Relatives of a person who died of COVID-19 while a funeral pyre burns in the foreground. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Reports of overcrowded cremation grounds are never-ending. The news is full of stills of deceased patients accompanied by grief-stricken family members or montages of overwhelmed healthcare facilities. Desperate calls for help from friends and family are the new normal.

For many, messages of lost loved ones have become inevitable. But perhaps most heartbreaking of all is that countless COVID-19 positive patients have died due to the shortage of medical resources.

Such is the case of 65-year old Vinay Srivastava, a Lucknow based journalist who received no medical care despite live-tweeting his depleting oxygen levels for over 20 hours. His last tweet read: “My oxygen is 31 when will someone help me?”. Gasping for breath, he passed away at home on 17 April.

Still, social media is the only source of hope for many. Inundated with calls for help, these platforms are no longer sources of escapism. Every second story on Instagram is a plea for oxygen, beds or medical drugs. 

Whatsapp, once a way to connect with friends, has now become a way to connect with suppliers and a source of constant bad news. However, the most effective of all is Twitter, packed with affordances that allow sharing, amplification and filtering.

In its own accord, Twitter has become India’s COVID-19 emergency room, a place where users have taken it upon themselves to become life-saving social workers. 

But as the coronavirus ravages India, questions about who to blame for this calamity have emerged. In a meeting with all chief ministers on the COVID-19 situation in India, PM Narendra Modi seemed to inculpate the general public, saying“People have become far too casual.” 

However, despite his own remarks, the ruling government still did not put the brakes on the Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that draws in millions of people every year. In fact, not only did it not dissuade people from attending, it actively encouraged people to participate in the festival by plastering advertisements on the front page of prominent newspapers, inviting people from all over the country to attend. 

Furthermore, at a time when it should be leading by example, the BJP has not stopped campaigning in West Bengal for the regional elections, and the Prime Minister continues to gloat about the masses of crowds these rallies have drawn. 

The grim situation has also brought to light the precarious state of the health infrastructure in India. Experts have been raising the alarm about a possible second wave since last year and issued warnings about how second waves, in any pandemic, have historically been deadlier. 

But despite all the red flags, the country’s current situation points towards the fact that there has been little to no preparation for a crisis of this magnitude. 

Even the vaccine rollout has been a haphazard attempt at rectifying the situation, with no actual plan in place. Despite being a mass producer and exporter of vaccines, India has fallen short on vaccines for its own people during the vaccination drive for those aged 45 and above. 

Even as the Health Ministry announced the government’s plan to vaccinate all those above 18 from 1 May, it came with the declaration that vaccines would be priced under the free-market model, putting the onus on state governments to buy them at the price declared by manufacturers. Essentially, the central government has washed its hands of the vaccine drive and has made it easier for itself to shift blame in case of shortages or higher prices.

As the public’s trust in the government withers away, people continue to rely on each other to find life-saving solutions. But even these ground efforts come with certain costs. Patients and their families are being scammed by people pretending to have medical supplies. Women who put their personal information out on the internet are experiencing harassment. 

Online users working day and night to verify and amplify COVID-19 resources are having to take a step back once in a while due to their declining mental health. Yet, the Twitter army soldiers on. After all, it seems to be the only thing that is holding together the county’s broken healthcare system for better or for worse.

Featured Image by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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