Twitter is a Covid helpline now. What does it say about India’s healthcare systems?

As coronavirus infections surge, people are increasingly turning to social media for emergency help.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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When Shivangi Sachdeva could not find a hospital bed in Delhi for her Covid-positive father, who also has a heart condition, there was only one place where she found help: Twitter. Her network amplified her request and she found a bed for her father at Maharaja Agrasen hospital in Punjabi Bagh.

Days later, Twitter came to her rescue yet again when she was looking for vials of Remdesivir for her father’s treatment.

“I then started using Twitter as a singular resource to not only help myself but others as well,” said Sachdeva, 23, who works as a marketing professional. “When I found legitimate sources of Remdesivir through Twitter, I shared the list. I could empathise with the feeling of helplessness and urgency that every person is going through.”

Over the last 10 days, Twitter has taken on the role of an unofficial Covid helpline. Hot takes and trolling have been replaced by requests for hospital beds, oxygen and Remdesivir.

As Covid infections continue to surge – India recorded over 2.7 lakh new cases on Monday – and resources across the country continue to deplete, frantic citizens are forced to turn to social media for help.

Individual citizens have also taken it upon themselves to compile resources on Twitter, Instagram and Google Docs. One Twitter user summarised the general sentiment in a tweet, telling Newslaundry that people are turning to Twitter since they have no one else.

“Nobody in their immediate circles has access to contact numbers or other resources, so they’re making this last-ditch attempt on Twitter,” said the 22-year-old resident of Delhi on the condition of anonymity.

Rati Chaudhary, a 37-year-old communications professional in Mumbai, told Newslaundry that she tweeted on Saturday in search of a hospital bed for her father in Delhi or Gurugram. She received dozens of messages from people trying to help, and even got a call from the Haryana chief minister’s office.

“What makes these random people help someone?” she asked. “Due to helplessness, people are going wherever they can. I love the power of Twitter, it is way beyond a platform to rant.”

Past experiences

A lot of the help on Twitter stems from personal suffering.

Rifa Vanoo, 22, a social media executive from Mumbai, said her family struggled to find an oxygen concentrator for her father last month. “I knew how critical these situations get when these things are not available,” she said. “To see thousands of requests floating on my timeline, knowing that people are as distressed as my family was: I knew I had to do something. This is the very least I could do: sharing tweets, connecting resources, cross-verifying and sending references.”

Vanoo has over 9,000 followers on Twitter and believes the platform is an important tool to spread information. “If the government isn’t doing anything,” she said, “we as citizens need to step in and do this.”

Last May, when Gayatri Manchanda, 45, had Covid, it was Twitter that helped her find a hospital bed. She’s now compiled a list of doctors and volunteers and works with a group to collate and verify resources. The group is trying to bridge what is happening online with on-ground efforts; a model similar to the resources during the Kerala and Chennai floods.

Similarly, in Lucknow, Chahat Malhotra, 19, started a thread on Covid resources after losing a relative to the virus on April 12. “I know how helpless one feels,” she said. “You don’t know who to call, you don’t know what to do when someone is dying in front of your eyes. Now, whatever links and contacts I have or I am coming across, I’m trying to put it out there.”

She added: “It’s in the hope that people don’t die because they don’t have the resources. What else does an ordinary citizen do? We aren’t political leaders. We don’t have any other leads.”

Obsolete resources, digital gap

Of course, this approach has its challenges. The availability of beds, medication and oxygen is dynamic so information often becomes obsolete within hours.

Cross-verifying resources is also difficult. “There was a message that Deen Dayal Upadhyay hospital in Delhi had a few beds available,” said the 22-year-old Twitter user who wanted to stay anonymous. “As soon as that tweet went up, it was shared widely and the beds filled up in just five minutes.”

Importantly, at least 50 percent of India’s population does not have internet access. The pandemic, with its shifts to working from home and digital education, has only widened the digital divide.

“Ninety-nine percent of Twitter requests are from people from the middle and upper classes,” said Dr Sonali Vaid, a public health professional. “We are not able to find ways to help people from poor and vulnerable sections of society or those with limited internet literacy and access. Twitter is not enough. We are helping but are also becoming part of the same unequal system that we want to rectify.”

There’s also a lot of misinformation flooding the resources being put out. “Our policy is: if you’re going to share a number, call it and verify it first, whether it’s a patient request or about the availability of a resource,” said Inayat Singh Kakar, a public health activist working with the Covid Citizen Action Group. “I don’t think there’s a way to verify something 100 percent, though. Something may be valid but it might not be three days later. That doesn’t mean it’s unverified.”

Yet, with nowhere else to turn, the collation of resources continues. Last week, a 35-year-old from Mumbai developed a web app to help people navigate through the Covid resources being posted online.

In Bengaluru, a 23-year-old put together a Twitter thread so resources would be available in one place. “It’s heartbreaking and unfortunate that Twitter has turned into a Covid emergency hotline now,” she told Newslaundry. “It’s a clear reflection of how incompetent the government is.”

Failure of the system

But what is the administration doing?

In Delhi, Inayat said, helplines are unreachable and nodal officers are unresponsive.

“Information on government portals, which are supposed to give availability of beds, are not accurate,” she said. “As a result, the next best thing to do is to go on Twitter and explore your network. Time is precious and beds are filling up fast.”

While resources are being shared on Facebook and Instagram, Twitter tends to be more accessible with greater reach. “Twitter is really embodying the spirit of ‘atmanirbhar’,” she said. “People have realised that government systems are not functioning. All we really have is each other.”

“In a lot of cases, it’s desperation after the constant failure to receive help,” said Shashwat Shukla, 23, who has been trying to help Covid patients in Bengaluru. “When our immediate facilities fail, followed by our immediate networks, we are bound to rely on using whatever social capital that social media can bestow in such situations.”

“It was my first instinct to tweet even at 3 am because my city was out of Remdesivir,” said a 21-year-old law student from Allahabad who tweeted in search of vials for her friend’s father. “It says a lot about the condition of this country if people have to beg for medicines or beds on a social media app.”

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