4 min read.Updated: 19 Apr 2021, 12:06 AM ISTPooja Singh
Tens of thousands of Indians, overwhelmed by covid-19, scared but unable to find quick medical assistance, are turning to social media for help
Randeep Ahuja’s world turned upside down on the morning of 15 April: his 65-year-old father woke up struggling to breathe.
Ahuja, a resident of South Delhi, carried him piggyback down three floors to the car and drove straight to the nearest private hospital.
“No doctor is free right now," he was told. At a government hospital: “No beds available." Another: “All doctors are busy." From 9am-2pm, Ahuja knocked on the doors of nine hospitals—none was able to help.
At 2:10pm, desperate, he put up his experience on Instagram Story, along with his mobile number, requesting his 230 followers to spread the word.
Twenty minutes later, a stranger called with the number of a doctor in West Delhi. The private hospital doctor, 30km away from Ahuja’s home, checked his father and gave a receipt, saying, “Needs to be admitted urgently". When Ahuja asked if the patient could be admitted to the same hospital, the doctor replied, “Not available".
Finally, the hospital’s storeroom was turned into a make-shift ICU. His father was covid-19 positive. So was Ahuja, 30.
Like Ahuja, tens of thousands of Indians, overwhelmed by covid-19, scared but unable to find quick medical assistance, are turning to social media for help.
It’s no more than a stab in the dark, but WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have lit up with messages seeking and offering help. Complete strangers are turning up at the digital doorsteps of harried patients.
Delhi is among India’s worst-affected cities. On Sunday, the national capital reported its highest-ever daily spike of 25,462 cases, taking the countrywide caseload to over 15.04 million. Daily cases in India have hit more than 200,000, three times the number in the US, the world’s worst-affected country.
Government authorities, engaged in rallies, elections and gigantic religious gatherings, were caught off-guard. So were citizens, who were throwing Holi colours on each other as recently as last month with the hope of returning to pre-pandemic normalcy.
Away from the numbers, a look at social media platforms is all that’s needed for an idea of the disastrous impact of the health crisis on the ground—just how much worse this new covid-19 wave is, how short India is falling on hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, how anxiety and uncertainty are consuming everyone, but also how people are pitching in, in whatever way possible, via social media to help each other deal with the pandemic.
A month ago, about 3% of Delhi’s population was infected, said B.L. Sherwal, director of government-run Rajiv Gandhi Super Specialty Hospital, a dedicated covid-19 healthcare centre. “Right now, about 30% are infected. It’s getting out of hand; this mutation is spreading fast, and its progression is also quick. People need to exercise social and physical distancing; else, we are stuck here for long."
That’s why Jyotsna Sharma, 35, hasn’t stepped out of her Gurugram apartment since last year’s Janata Curfew. “I became active on social media just to help people with covid and amplify requests. Our medical infrastructure is so stressed it’s falling apart. It’s heartening to see so many NGOs, volunteer groups and people on social media stepping up and helping," she said.
Sharma spent all of 17 April calling hospital numbers listed on covidggn.com, the government website that shows the availability of hospital beds and other related data, looking for a hospital bed for her covid-positive cousin. “The site showed hospitals had beds, but when we called, nothing was available."
Mint called over 15 of the 40-plus hospitals listed on the site. Just two answered the call, only to say they didn’t have beds, although the frequently updated site claimed they did.
With no help available from the authorities, Sharma turned to Twitter. Finally, she managed to find an oxygen cylinder and medical help—courtesy of the kindness, once again, of a complete stranger.
An oxygen cylinder at present costs ₹13,000, said Harteerath Singh, community development director at Hemkunt Foundation, that’s working round the clock providing oxygen cylinders. “It was around ₹6,000 earlier. The demand is so high right now. We are getting some 100 requests from Delhi, Mumbai every day. Last year, we got a total of 100 requests between March and December," said Singh, who has exhausted his stock of cylinders for now.
The story is the same with blood plasma. Gautam M. of Blood Donors India, one of the world’s largest such groups with over a million followers on Twitter, said in the past six days, he’s received over 8,000 requests for blood plasma.
“During the spike last year, the most we got was 1,200-1,300 countrywide. Till last month, we were getting 150 requests a day. I’m spending 18 hours on my chair, just responding to Twitter requests," said Gautam. “More people should come out and donate. Every drop counts. We need to fight this together. Government alone can’t do this."
Gautam can add at least one more donor to his list.
Randeep Ahuja said he will donate blood once he recovers. “For a few moments that day, I thought I lost my father. I don’t know how to put into words what I went through, but I don’t want anyone to go through the same. Maybe I got the virus home. We need to wear masks at all times."