Social Media as ‘Godsend’: In India, Cries for Help Get Results

NEW DELHI – Rajni Gill woke up in mid-April with a low fever, the first warning that she had Covid-19. Within a few days she was breathless and almost passed out in a hospital.

Desperate to arrange plasma treatment for Ms. Gill, a gynecologist in Noida City, her family called doctors, friends, and anyone they believed could help. Then her sister wrote on Facebook: “I am looking for a plasma donor for my sister who is in the hospital in Noida. She is B positive and 43 years old. “

The news, which was quickly amplified on Twitter, flashed over the phone from Srinivas BV, an opposition politician in nearby Delhi who was just securing plasma for a college student. He stood in for a volunteer donor to rush to the blood bank for Ms. Gill.

“The administration and the systems have collapsed,” said Srinivas. “I’ve never seen so many people die at the same time.”

“Mine and the work of my team may be a drop in the ocean – but a drop nonetheless,” he said.

As the Indian healthcare system is overwhelmed by India’s unprecedented surge in Covid, bringing in more than 400,000 new cases and thousands of deaths daily, desperate relatives and friends of the infected have sent SOS messages on social media. And many of those calls are answered.

Some people need medical oxygen that is hard to find in Delhi, the capital. Others look for drugs that fetch high prices on the black market or ventilators that are extremely rare.

The requests are reaching tech-savvy engineers, lawyers, NGO workers, politicians, doctors and even tuk-tuk drivers who have mobilized online to help the sick some hundreds of kilometers away. Together they have formed basic networks that step in where state and national governments have failed.

It is a role that 38 year old Srinivas has played in previous times of crisis.

As president of the youth league of the opposition Indian National Congress Party, he has provided support after natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. He has worked to bring textbooks for disadvantaged children and medicines for people who could not afford them.

Early last year, when the pandemic first broke out and India closed, Mr Srinivas got young volunteers on their toes across the country handing out food to stranded migrants as well as more than 10 million masks. Today he leads a team of 1,000 people, including 100 in Delhi, the center of the current outbreak.

“I grew up with Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals,” said Srinivas, who wanted to play cricket before entering politics. “I can’t believe I’m out here today trying to help so many people.”

The calls for help on Twitter and Facebook “spread like wildfire,” said Srinivas in early April. He created the hashtag #SOSIYC so people could connect with his organization, the Indian Youth Congress.

His team is promoting plasma donors online and 5,000 have signed up. He also hires psychologists to advise donors about the four-hour process.

India’s loose online support networks rely on tools and techniques commonly used in marketing and other forms of social media messaging. Families tag individuals with large followers or special skills who may be able to reinforce their messages, while volunteer organizers use keywords to filter the flood of inquiries.

Abhishek Murarka, who works in finance in Mumbai, decided he had to do more than retweet the news. He searched for the terms “verified”, “confirmed” and “available” on Twitter to find specific references to Covid deliveries. He has since posted an 84-second video explaining his techniques so others can use them.

Hundreds of kilometers away, 20-year-old Praveen Mishra, who runs a startup in the southern city of Bangalore, studied Mr. Murarka’s video and applied his own filters to search for beds, oxygen and medication. He was able to bring a specific drug to a patient in Delhi after confirming that it was available in Hyderabad.

“At first I was very afraid that there were too many cases and that I would not be able to help at all,” said Mishra. “Now I call 20 leads a day and review their needs.”

Some people use resources around the world. Nikhil Jois, a technology manager in Bangalore, and his own team screened charities that supplied oxygen, food, and sanitary napkins. He’s narrowed his list to just over a dozen organizations, some of which have accepted international donations.

His team then asked several companies in India to link to the list of their apps or websites. And he began emailing executives, investors, and best-selling authors in the United States.

“The best thing about social media is that you trust strangers,” said Jois.

Of course, that’s not always a good idea. Doubtful accounts provide desperate people with poorly or exorbitantly priced goods, and supplies of supplies can evaporate quickly. And trolls will always inflict hatred on the vulnerable.

But with India in crisis and travel not a safe option, social media has been the only way for some people to find help.

Aditya Jain, who lives in Delhi, recently posted a plea that went viral on Twitter. He felt helpless when his older aunt and uncle, about 130 miles away in Agra, fought during the strict lockdown there.

His aunt has a spinal disease and his uncle, a diabetic, needs weekly dialysis. They couldn’t go out and only ate one meal a day. They couldn’t take care of themselves and sometimes they couldn’t make it to the bathroom.

Via LinkedIn he found an organization aimed at seniors. He filled out a form with their name, location, and other information. The next morning, volunteers showed up on their doorstep with breakfast and adult diapers.

“Social media is like a godsend for us,” said an emotional Mr. Jain, who lost one of his other relatives to Covid.

Mr Srinivas said he received at least 10,000 messages on Twitter every day and followed up on all of them. For every 100 inquiries, he said, he can usually help 30 to 40 people, given the shortage.

Even foreign diplomats in Delhi have asked his organization for help. On Sunday, the New Zealand High Commission marked the Indian Youth Congress on Twitter with a call for oxygen bottles. As the group is part of the political opposition, it received a lot of attention given the intense criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the pandemic. (The commission said their appeal was “misinterpreted, which we are sorry”.)

Mr Srinivas’ volunteers use direct messages to collect data on people in need of help and then classify them according to risk profile. They work with local people to arrange hospital beds and plasma donations for the most serious cases. Others are put in contact with doctors who can provide remote consultations.

Often the shortcomings of the system are too great to be overcome.

Mahua Ray Chaudhuri desperately tagged Mr. Srinivas in search of oxygen for her ailing father. His team found a few, but that wasn’t enough: there were no ICU beds available.

“At least I could get him oxygen and he died breathing,” Ms. Chaudhuri said over the phone and collapsed. “This help from strangers on Twitter was like a balm for our troubled minds and souls.”

But Mr. Srinivas’ team could get Plasma for Mrs. Gill, the gynecologist, just in time. She is now recovering in a hospital on the outskirts of Delhi.

“I feel choked with emotion,” she said. “When I came out of such a deadly time, I realized that total strangers were selflessly helping me.”

She recently called Mr. Srinivas to thank him. “Although I’ve never met her, it was a humbling experience to hear her voice,” he said. “I’m so relieved that she made it.”