A friend of mine was looking for a bed with oxygen support for his father ailing from COVID-19. “His oxygen level was plummeting, and hospitals refused to take him in due to non-availability of resources,” said the friend, who refused to disclose his name due to the sensitivity of the situation.
He was not only working on this but also collating resources for other people. Constantly working to keep himself away from the dread of his own sufferings, he resorted to smoking and drinking. “I cannot be weak right now, especially since my family needs me.”
He is not alone. Many like him are completing the government’s duty of finding oxygen supply, hospital beds, ventilators, plasma donors, remdesivir, and other medications required to treat COVID-19.
What has happened is an influx of requests on social media asking for the following:
One user on Twitter writes, “In urgent need of an ICU bed for my grandfather in Delhi. His oxygen levels are low, and we are unable to find him a bed.” Another writes, “Looking for remdesivir medicine for my husband and child. They both are COVID positive, and we are unable to procure the medicine from anywhere.”
This is the state of affairs in India where thousands have turned to social media to make up for the crumbling health care system.
Rajarshita Sur, a trader by profession, took up the challenge. She started on her own but soon, through Twitter, found 40 volunteers who could collect data for her. She then divided them into teams to look into resources for different states.
Niharika Mehta and her 30 odd friends and classmates are on a similar mission to find a bed for her ill grandmother. They have made a huge database where they collect information from social media platforms. “We are contacting influencers and food bloggers who have a massive following on these platforms to upload the requirements we need on their handles so that it can reach more people.“
But what has come is an abundance of unverified and false information where either the contacts are old, or the phone numbers are switched off. So, how is it? Then they verify this immense information and leads that are coming in.
Mehta says that they are continuously calling the vendors and hospitals to check with them about the concerned facility or medicine availability. “We update this information so that it is easier to track the verified vendors and sources. This saves a lot of time.”
Vasudha Prashar, 23, similarly works with 70 people to make resources and data available to the patients. “We have a verification team formed who personally calls up the contact numbers and verify the information to then feed it into a spreadsheet.”
Prashar says that this does not require much skill. “As long as you have that grit and determination to do something for the people who need dire help, you can do it.”
But the constant effort and work have taken a toll on them. They have abundant requests they cannot fulfil all the time, and that adds to the stress.
“This causes a lot of pessimism. No matter how much you try, there will always be shortcomings. It hurts to see so many people struggling for their lives and gives a chill (sic) to your bones. But we are doing whatever we can to help them,” said Prashar.
Sur, on the other hand, feels that it is heartbreaking to see people not getting help. “Without monetary benefits of volunteering, I have to constantly motivate my team. It is tough to verify the sources, where 80% of the leads turn out to be fake or obsolete. I need to keep my mental strength by seeing that I have at least helped four to five cases a day.”
Not only mentally, but it is physically straining for Sur to sit and keep finding and researching sources on her phone and laptop all day.
After working on the ground, she said that the situation is terrible. “Politicians should move beyond the political agenda and build good medical infrastructure. But we can’t blame them too and need to own up to the circumstances by working for it.”
Manav Desai, an 18-year old from Mumbai, is facing a similar dilemma. He said that collecting sources is very frustrating because numbers can be fake, and requests can be pretty urgent. Injections like Remdesivir and Tocilizumab can be out of stock. “Sometimes you read about tweets about how people have fallen financially. We want to help them, but you feel like you’re stuck in prison. People have cried over strangers just because they could not save lives.”
Desai said that one way to cope is to take breaks and come back when you feel better.
Similarly, what has helped is staying home, says Seimonee Fernandes from Mumbai. “I am working from home and staying indoors. So, I get to balance the time out and handle both easily. I dedicate some decent time to volunteer because this is the need of the hour.”
Vibhor Varshney, a stock market trader, who lost many friends due to COVID is also leading the fight. “I like to bathe in the sunlight, listen to some good music and talk to people. It helps me cope with stress.” He also said he talks to people who have recovered from COVID to get some positive news from them. “I then inform them and motivate them to donate plasma.”
Sur also says there is not enough awareness around plasma donation. “People who have been infected previously need not worry and should come forward to donate.”
Mental health is not only it. People have faced legal pressure from the police and government to close their channels providing resources. Varshney had a channel of more than 9,000 members on Telegram.
“We ourselves tried to verify as much information as we could. They closed down the channel because someone reported it and said it violated the Disaster Act,” he said. A lot of red tape is involved with how legalities have stopped people from forming these resource groups.
The government, meanwhile, has not taken charge of the situation and is not allowing citizens to do the same due to legal repercussions.
Amidst this crisis is the overbearing negative COVID news, which does not stop coming. This has significantly taken a toll on people’s mental health.
Fernandes said that she feels extremely helpless.
However, she has found ways to cope.”My anxiety levels are very high, so I get some extra sleep. I watch some feel-good movies or comedy series, and I cook.” She says that these things help her fight even better.
Anish Talpade, a comic artist, says he has been negatively affected by the news as well. “I wake up, and I see the news. I see so many deaths happening around me and fear it might happen to my family. I feel helpless.”
He added that COVID-19 has added to his pre-existing anxiety disorder and exacerbated his illness. But what helps him is keeping himself occupied, watching anime and movies, and trying to help other people. “I feel disappointed that I can’t help the lakhs of people who are suffering, but I am glad I can at least help a few people,” he said.
With the developments around Corona Virus; feeling anxiety, isolation and despair are normal. In the poster below are details to contact us. We are here, we are listening. pic.twitter.com/qgKSTmLt7P
— Praan Foundation (@PraanF) April 2, 2020
He said that taking breaks and keeping your phone away is a crucial way to maintain your sanity. “There is only so much the mind can take. If you see something so much, you start believing in it deeply. This affects your thought process, alters your identity. So you have to be mindful of what news you are consuming.”
This is just one aspect of it. What has affected rural India and low-income families is the digital divide. For many, Twitter is an unknown platform, and they have no way of accessing it. In 2020, India had nearly 700 million internet users across the country, leaving out the rest of the 1.32 billion people.
The light at the end of the tunnel is organizations and people getting together and inventing new ways to rise to the occasion.
Among them is an Oxygen Langar based in Ghaziabad’s Indirapuram area. The Shri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Indirapuram, and an NGO, Khalsa Help International, took up the initiative and started administering free oxygen on Thursday evening. By Friday evening, more than 700 patients had visited the langar.
“We are not giving or refilling cylinders. We ask the patients to come here to the Indirapuram gurdwara and someone in a car, and we will give them oxygen. Be it two, four, or eight hours, we will provide oxygen till the time the patient gets a bed at any hospital,” said Gurpreet Singh, as reported by The Hindu.
This begs the question of whether the government is doing enough? And why did the citizens need to play the role of the government in the first place?