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Behind The Scenes: How Social Media Warriors Are Tackling The COVID Crisis

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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.

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.

लचर सरकार, निष्क्रिय सिस्टम और कोरोना की भयावहता कौन है ज़िम्मेदार?
Representational image. A COVID patient receiving oxygen in a car.

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. 

Representational image.

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.

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?

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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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

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 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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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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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