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.
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.
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.