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Oxygen, beds and more: Social media influencers, citizen volunteers pitch in as Covid crisis deepens

The social media platform has become the ground zero for family members and friends raising requests for their loved ones -- or just receiving reassurances that all will be well. And there are thousands of them.

Written by Surbhi Gupta | New Delhi |
Updated: April 24, 2021 12:43:27 pm
Covid-19 social help, social volunteers for Covid help. Oxygen cylinders, Social media information on bed availabilities, Indian expressOxygen cylinders are transported to a hospital in New Delhi on Friday (Express Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)

For over a week, citizen volunteers across the country, ranging from students to social media influencers, have been responding to SOS requests on Twitter from Covid-19 patients seeking oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds, plasma and medicines.

The social media platform has become the ground zero for family members and friends raising requests for their loved ones — or just receiving reassurances that all will be well. And there are thousands of them.

“Last year, when people would call me, they just needed someone to talk to. However, since the last 10 days, things have just blown up. Earlier, what were one or two messages, are now SOS calls coming from everywhere, I am unable to even keep a count,” said Sweta Dash, a Delhi-based public health researcher, who is part of Medical Support Group, a citizen group assisting critical and pregnant Covid-19 patients. “Twitter, WhatsApp, phone calls, all are full of requests,” she said.

Dash asks those reaching out to fill up a basic form that is sent to a WhatsApp group of volunteers, who divide the cases among themselves and directly deal with families. “There is a separate group which coordinates with hospitals and suppliers to verify the number of beds available,” she says.

There is an information overload on Twitter at the moment, pointed out Dash. “It’s a lot of useless information as most of the leads are a week old or suppliers are out of stock,” she said.

Covid-19 social help, social volunteers for Covid help. Oxygen cylinders, Social media information on bed availabilities, Indian express 65-year-old Om Dutt Sharma with grandson Mohan at GTB Hospital on Friday. (Express Photo: Jignasa Sinha)

“There is so much information, but so little information that holds value,” said social media influencer Anchal Aggarwal. She has now created a group of volunteers who verify leads received, which she then communicates to family members on a one-to-one basis. “A lot of people are messaging us just for fun or hoarding, hence, gatekeeping is becoming necessary,” said Aggarwal, who has a following of over 1.7 lakh on Instagram. She started amplifying requests last week and is involved full-time now.

Many groups, previously engaged with blood donation, have also stepped up to the task. “From fulfilling plasma needs, these volunteers are now working on getting ventilators, oxygen cylinders, hospitals beds and medicines. The same format works here — one deals with family members, one verifies the information on an hour to hour basis. “What I do is that I identify requests on Twitter and share with them. And I’ve noticed 75 per cent of requests are being met,” said Jaideep Pandey, a Gorakhpur-based independent journalist.

However, requests for ventilators are most difficult to handle at the moment and their demand is the highest he adds. “Even if we find a bed, finding ambulances is difficult. For plasma donation, one in 200 recovered patients is agreeing to donate,” he said.

Delhi-based podcaster Ankit Gupta, who is on Twitter as Kisse Kahaniya, has a team of over 250 volunteer groups also said that ventilator beds are the most in demand and most difficult to fulfil. “We are unable to find oxygen cylinders. Even top hospitals in Delhi are only left with a few hours of oxygen,” he said.

Gupta’s team is also distributing food packets to over a thousand migrants and homeless people in Ramlila Maidan and Nigam Bodh Ghat, but funds crunch is posing a problem. “We have too many requests and numbers are increasing due to lockdown, however, we’re facing a funds crunch this time and as everyone is dealing with a personal crisis,” he said.

Several individuals are also coming forward to help, either to run errands or cook food. Hyderabad-based law student Rikit Shahi put a call on Twitter last Thursday saying he can help patients and families in his locality. “Initially I got some requests for delivering medicines and food and as I started posting updates on social media, I started receiving more requests from all over the city,” he said. Now people are tagging him on posts from all over the country, which he redirects to local volunteers. “I have also started with my friend’s portal, fightagainstcovid19.org, where we are personally connecting patients with donors for plasma,” he said.

Losing a patient they are assisting is personal, say volunteers. “Every evening when I look at the daily bulletin, there is at least one person I was personally dealing with has died. Yesterday, I lost a 24-week pregnant woman,” said Dash. Many volunteers, who log off for a few hours, are doing so to help their own family members, she said.

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