Roar writer Manya Sareen reflects on the role played by social media during the recent and devastating wave of Covid-19 in India. This article is part of a series called #IndiaInRed, run in collaboration with Roar News (KCL) and Strand Magazine (KCL).
While most countries were hit by a second wave of Covid-19 at the end of last year, India was recovering from its first wave, with cases ranging from as low as 30 to 14 per million people. During this time, the UK and US had more than a hundred cases daily, as did a lot of other European countries. India was internationally recognized for the decline in cases, and the government boasted that India had passed its peak and that the country was close to being virus-free.
In March, scientists detected a new Coronavirus mutation in samples from different states. This was a double mutation that made the virus more infectious and was considered the main reason behind the surge in cases. Since then, India’s Covid rate has been rising at a devastating pace, creating new records for highest daily cases. This is certainly not uncommon; many countries over the last year have witnessed steep curves. What has led to large scale devastation in India, though, is the shortage of basic medical facilities like hospital beds and oxygen. This is accompanied by a decrease in the availability of vaccines and basic Covid medicines. The main catastrophe is the lack of oxygen supply.
As someone who is in the midst of this situation, with multiple family members battling the virus after being exposed to it despite staying home, I can confidently say that the spread was not caused miraculously. It was largely due to the Kumbh Mela, a religious Hindu pilgrimage that the government decided not to cancel and was then attended by tens of thousands of worshippers, many of whom went home carrying the virus. During and after this, the government decided to hold major rallies for upcoming elections in the state of West Bengal, defending the campaign as a constitutional right.
While the Indian health infrastructure crumbled under the weight of over 300,000 cases daily, people succumbed to asking for and offering assistance on social media. In the absence of state services, citizens had to fend for themselves and each other.
Where social media previously took the crown for spreading negativity, it has become a humanitarian platform where desperate people seek hospital admissions, ICU beds, oxygen concentrators and cylinders, plasma donors, and medicines for critical patients. Companies, news outlets, social media influencers and celebrities, too, began to share pleas for help as more and more individuals turned to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as a last resort. The youth of India is at the forefront of this movement, as the elders in the family scramble to gather financial resources.
Private hospitals used Twitter to inform the public about the lack of oxygen and to plead with authorities for immediate action. Fortis Hospital in Haryana requested that several members of the government “act immediately and help us to save patients’ lives”. This was followed by SOS calls and finally an update confirming that the oxygen cylinders had been dispatched. While it is extremely disappointing that private healthcare companies have to resort to social media to beg for a basic resource, there is also a feeling of gratitude to these platforms for helping save lives when there is no other option.
Since then, the community has united further. A Twitter search for Covid-19 resources was created whereby those in need could easily find verified Tweets posted by those with available supplies.
On Instagram, while some posted requests for hospital beds, plasma, oxygen and the like, others posted guides to where these could be found. Journalists Faye D’Souza, Rana Ayyub, and Barkha Dutt began spreading reliable information that, unlike information from major news channels, could be trusted. Celebrities with large social media followings like Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli started fundraisers which have each raised almost a million USD. Students like Rishika Arora did their part by completing school or university assignments for those affected by the virus. Others created pools among friends and families, sharing oxygen cylinders and concentrators.
However, the problem of misinformation is still prevalent. Many sources shared by individuals are invalid, with outdated contacts necessitating personal verification of resources. This is accompanied by various myths and mass-forwarded messages on WhatsApp spreading misinformation about the use of plasma therapy and a medicine named Remdesivir. Ordinary citizens who claim to have experience with the virus have begun to suggest treatments for the virus without guidance from any medical authorities.
This is a result of a lack of government support and information. Government hospitals are prescribing minimal medicines while those working at private practices are providing dozens upon dozens. Some say that plasma therapy is an effective cure for Covid-19 and could save lives, while others say it is unhelpful. There is no reliable information about lab investigations, resulting in patients getting unnecessary CT scans and blood tests. The Health Ministry has not issued a statement to ensure strict compliance with the guidelines. While those who have received a positive Covid-19 report from government labs receive limited medical aid, others using private lab facilities get no support. Additionally, some claim that the government has reduced testing as cases rise to maintain India’s public image. The BJP government has failed to step up for its country when we need it the most, leaving us to fend for ourselves through the extremely useful but often unreliable platforms of social media.
Crematoriums are flooding with dead bodies, morgues are running out of stretchers, and the sky is black with smoke and ashes. India is in crisis and when we make it out of this, it will be because of the community, and not the government.
We have compiled a list of resources for Covid-19-related aid in India, and will continue to update it as the situation develops. Multiple societies at King’s have started a relief fundraiser for the Covid-19 crisis in India, which can be found here.