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Covid surge

How Indians are crowdsourcing aid as covid surges

From Tinder to social media apps to Google Docs, people are tracking down oxygen, drugs, and medical equipment with little government help.

April 28, 2021
plasma donate tinder
plasma donate tinder
Ms Tech | Pexels

Sohini Chattopadhyay had almost given up her medical quest before deciding to try one last bizarre idea. Chattopadhyay, 30, and her friends were looking for a plasma donor for a childhood pal who was battling covid-19 in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. The woman’s oxygen levels were plummeting, and doctors said that "convalescent plasma," from blood donated by a covid survivor, might provide the antibodies she needed to improve. By 11 on a Sunday night, after putting up posts on social media and failing to find any promising leads, Chattopadhyay finally tried a different approach: Tinder. 

She and another friend created one free account each on the dating app and swiped right to “like” profiles of anyone who looked healthy and close to their age. Her profile said: “Bonus if you are up to donating plasma for my bestie.” Chattopadhyay hit Tinder’s limit on likes, but the other friend managed to get a response from someone who had the right blood type and—to their surprise—was willing. 

“I was pretty touched,” says Chattopadhyay. “What started as a desperate joke turned out to actually give us some leads, and in this case also found someone willing to donate.” 

Although a Tinder match for convalescent plasma may be a one-off success story, it represents the myriad ways India’s residents are going online to help their loved ones as the country faces around 350,000 new covid cases a day, a dramatic spike that began in early April. And without enough government action or information, ordinary citizens are turning to social media to crowdsource everything from financial help to medical equipment. They’re inundating Twitter and Instagram with requests for hospital beds, oxygen supplies, antiviral drugs, and convalescent plasma donors; they’re creating Google docs, websites, and web apps to aggregate what’s being shared and to play matchmaker between buyers and sellers. 

This week, several countries have mobilized to help: the UK is sending ventilators and oxygen concentrators, while Russia plans to send generators and drugs. After some pressure, the Biden administration has agreed to send the raw materials for more vaccines as well as other forms of aid, including ventilators and personal protective gear. 

But it’s not clear whether international aid and on-the-ground hustle can help overcome supply shortages in such an unprecedented situation. Just a month after the health minister declared that the country was in the “endgame” of the covid-19 pandemic, India now has higher case totals than any other country has witnessed—and some claim that deaths, already officially approaching 200,000 by official counts, are being underreported

A desperate state

Aanchal Agrawal is one volunteer working to connect people to resources through Twitter, with tweets like “Delhi oxygen beds available? Please send leads in replies.” 

Ninety percent of India’s oxygen supply—7,500 metric tons daily—is being directed to covid patients. Still, demand has been so overwhelming that any possible lead on extra supplies, no matter the price, can disappear quickly. 

"A lot of people who are asking for leads, medicines—they don’t know where to go, who to reach out to."

Agrawal spent the last two weeks disseminating such leads to her 42,000 Twitter followers, connecting people’s families with resources and verifying information—weeding out dead ends and false hope. In the process, she estimates, she has been communicating with around 400 people seeking help every day.

“A lot of people who are asking for leads, medicines—they don’t know where to go, who to reach out to, and even when they reach [someone], the medicines get exhausted because the demand is so high,” says Agrawal, a 29-year-old content creator. 

She is also in touch with at least 200 volunteers who are helping find verified sources of oxygen, beds, and antiviral drugs. Despite their efforts, they often hit roadblocks. “There are fake screenshots also being circulated,” says Agrawal. Inaccurate or outdated contact numbers are a big problem. Malicious misinformation, however, is more an exception than the norm.

Things have gotten more complicated because the Indian government has asked Twitter and Facebook to take down some posts that were critical of how it’s handled the pandemic. So far around 100 posts have been removed: the government said they “spread fake or misleading information” and created “panic about the covid-19 situation in India by using unrelated, old, and out-of-context images or visuals.” 

Critics say this is a step toward censorship, and that negative posts shouldn't be removed under the auspices of protecting users from misinformation. 

Meanwhile, volunteers are working hard to keep information current. Prachi Salve, a program manager with the nonprofit research foundation IndiaSpend, now has a team of five people debunking inaccurate leads—especially wrong phone numbers for suppliers or resources—and making 350 calls a day. She estimates that just 5 to 10 % make it to their “verified” list, which is available publicly for people to use. One problem, she says, is that “expired leads from last year are being recirculated.”  

It was only after many false starts that 23-year-old Isha Bansal finally found suppliers for an oxygen cylinder kit and antiviral injections for her 31-year-old cousin, who is in the hospital with covid.

Bansal lives with 14 other family members in Delhi, and two weeks ago she started experiencing covid symptoms. Even as she self-isolated, all her family members soon started showing signs of infection. As the situation worsened, she knew she had to start looking for oxygen cylinders and other resources, but she didn’t know where to turn. Everything she found on Google or through WhatsApp was a wrong number, or the supplies were out of stock.

Bansal’s friends stepped in. They scoured Twitter and Instagram, found suppliers, and started calling one after the other. After about a hundred calls, one lead materialized, and Bansal—now recovering from covid—went and picked up the oxygen kit. She paid 12 times the original price. After that, she paid almost $1,200 for antiviral drugs on the black market.

“It’s inhuman that people are making a business out of it,” she says. 

She also said that having a team of family and friends searching was essential: “If I had been calling them alone, I would have been drained out, but since my friends were helping out, one of the numbers worked. Otherwise, it’s very time consuming and disheartening.” 

The limits of crowdsourcing

As volunteers circulate information on social media, others have helped aggregate it. Umang Galaiya, a 25-year-old software engineer, built the website covid19-twitter.in, which started out as a place where people could look for city-specific resources and began adding keywords over time: beds, oxygen, remdesivir, FabiFlu. Over 200,000 people have visited this website in less than a week. 

"While websites like Instagram and Twitter have helped create a network that has allowed for many people to find information and share, they are exclusionary and they are elite."

Twitter, for its part, is creating a list of resources shared by verified users.

But online crowdsourcing isn’t helping everyone who needs it. India has a little over 2 million Twitter users and around 28 million Instagram users, which is a fraction of the nearly 700 million internet users in the country—and that itself is only around half of the population of 1.36 billion. There are lots of people who don’t know what Twitter is, or how to use it. As covid overwhelms rural parts of the country—nearly half of one village in south India tested positive, according to reports—people are coming up with different ways to overcome the digital divide. Padmini Ray Murray, founder of the tech design company Design Beku, says, “While websites such as Instagram and Twitter have helped create a network that has allowed for many people to find information and share, they are exclusionary and they are elite, leaving the majority of India's population to fend for themselves.” 

Murray woke up one morning last week and decided to design a website, oxygenblr.in, for speakers of both English and the local language, Kannada, in Bangalore. The site contains phone numbers for ambulances and information on oxygen and bed availability, home care, blood donation, and more. She says, “I felt there was a need to rescue all this content from these [social media] platforms and then put it in a static space that people could access.”

A role for government

As small-scale digital efforts take off, bigger collaborations are starting to emerge: aid is on the way from India’s tech sector, as investors and startups charter flights for oxygen cylinders and concentrators. Many have also come together to raise around $10 million for oxygen, vaccines, and home care, while others are running campaigns to raise funds in cryptocurrency. 

But as citizens work to find their own solutions, experts have criticized the government’s approach. For example, they point to how Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on television as cases spiraled out of control and, instead of commenting on the true scope of the crisis, simply asked Indians to be more careful. Modi’s political party has also said on Twitter that free vaccines in one state would be contingent on an electoral win. 

This comes after the government allowed massive public gatherings and ordered just a fraction of the vaccines needed to meet inoculation targets—even though India is one of the largest vaccine producers in the world. In February the country gave away over 3 million vaccine doses to its neighbor countries Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives but was later criticized for not prioritizing its own citizens. 

As the lack of supplies grows more and more dire, public health experts say the Indian government must take a stronger leadership role. Giridhara Babu, an epidemiologist with the Public Health Foundation of India, believes transparency and accountability are the first steps. The administration was caught off guard with the speed and scale of the second wave, but as the crisis deepens, he says, “the government has to acknowledge it.”

Signs of more coordinated action from officials are finally starting to emerge. The Modi government recently launched an “oxygen express—a train that will transport liquid medical oxygen and oxygen cylinders from across the country. The first one arrived in Maharashtra, one of the worst-affected states, on April 23.

At the same time, state governments have taken matters into their own hands by imposing statewide lockdowns and launching online portals. The state of Karnataka, for instance, has reactivated its online data dashboard, which launched last year during India’s first wave, to share accurate data on available hospital beds and the number of cases across the state. This year “there are some glitches, which are being sorted out,” says V. Ravi, a virologist and part of the state’s technical advisory committee on covid-19. But soon “it should be able to play a similar role in handling the current crisis,” he says.

Even if government resources do exist, some go unused because people may not know about their city’s help line or social media presence. And other services are simply overwhelmed.

“Phones are ringing constantly, so most times when people try to call them, the lines are busy,” says Anas Tanwir, a lawyer based in Delhi who is heading a team that helps people verify resource leads. “Even when they answer, they don’t have any beds left to offer.” Others say that even if the government website provides information on bed availability, it’s harder to find other essential information on oxygen, antiviral drugs, or food services for people recovering at home.

Babu says that no single approach offers the answer: the only way to tackle a crisis as large as this one may be for the government to work in partnership with citizen groups and online platforms. “If the citizens are able to generate this kind of solidarity and ensure all these details are updated—if the government becomes a facilitator of this—then it can only become much better,” he says.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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