Family members of Vijay Raju, who died due to Covid, mourn before his cremation in Giddenahalli village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2021.
Samuel Rajkumar | Reuters
As India’s devastating second wave of coronavirus outbreak overwhelmed the health-care system, desperate users turned to social media to seek help from the public as hospital beds and oxygen supplies ran out.
People in need of assistance, either for themselves or their relatives, posted requests on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Others collated information on the availability of beds in hospitals as well as contact details of vendors with oxygen cylinders and other resources in short supply. In many instances, the efforts helped save lives.
“We quite often hear only a very dystopian narrative for social media in which, it is increasing political polarization and causing a deep degree of social damage,” Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital liberties organization in India, told CNBC.
“But, social media also has the potential of bringing people together,” he said and explained that is why it’s important to fight for the right kind of incentives-based system design and algorithmic accountability around social media.
“I think this Covid disaster that is continuing in India is showing the promise of social media to be used as a tool for organizing relief and also demanding greater amounts of political accountability at all levels — from our health-care officials to decision-makers who set budgets,” Gupta said.
Twitter hashtags like #CovidSOS and #CovidEmergency became popular among users searching for hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen cylinders. The retweet function helped amplify their requests.
Strangers banded together to help one another weather the unprecedented crisis.
Volunteers collated up-to-date information on Google spreadsheets that have been shared widely on social platforms.
Some set up websites to track vaccine availability while others created apps that generated links to Twitter search that help users find Covid-19 resources in their cities. Many people also volunteered to make home-cooked meals for patients quarantining at home while others offered assistance with tasks like grocery shopping.
For its part, Twitter added a Covid-19 resources page to broaden the visibility of information.
Social media influencers, celebrities and politicians also got involved in the crowdsourcing effort, with some of them helping to arrange for beds and oxygen cylinders as India’s daily case count spiked in April and early May.
Though Twitter became the most visible social media platform in India’s crowdsourcing efforts because of its ability to amplify requests and tag influencers and politicians, Gupta said other platforms were also used to a large extent.
He said volunteers also came together in WhatsApp groups to focus on more granular communities such as housing societies and alumni groups. Gen-Z — or those born between 1996 and the early 2010s — and younger millennials turned to Instagram, he said.
Daily cases in India have come off a peak of more than 414,000 new daily infections that was reached on May 7. Still, experts say the virus is spreading in rural India, where the health infrastructure is not equipped to handle unexpected surges.
On Twitter, which has greater influence in India’s urban centers compared to rural areas, users have already started collating resources and initiatives to respond to the outbreak in India’s countryside.
Users turning to social media for help was also a reflection of how ill-prepared India’s health-care system was in responding to a sudden surge in cases. Mounting case counts and an increasing death toll laid bare the deep-rooted problems that exist in India’s public health system after decades of neglect and underinvestment.
“Social media can’t replace the core responsibility of the state to help the citizens in the time of crisis,” Ankur Bisen, a senior vice president at Indian management consulting firm Technopak Advisors, told CNBC. It can only act as a complementary channel and cannot replace the core functions of the state such as disaster management and health-care delivery, he said.
Bisen added that in this case, social media is becoming the only option for many because the other mediums are lacking — it is a poor reflection of how the central and state governments have struggled to address the Covid-19 crisis, he said.
“The state often has to address disaster and make sure it communicates and gives comfort to the citizens that the state is watching their back, which has not been the case here,” Bisen said. He added that social media is “always a complementary medium, it can never become the principal driver to address disasters.”
Gupta from Internet Freedom Foundation said some of the volunteers have been threatened by authorities for their efforts, both informally and through legal means.
Local media reported last month that some Covid-19 relief groups providing information on hospital beds and oxygen via messaging apps like WhatsApp, Discord and Telegram disbanded, while some online trackers for resources were deleted.
Volunteers complained of threats from police that demanded they shut down — but the police have denied making such demands. In Uttar Pradesh, the BBC reported police charged a man who used Twitter to try and find oxygen for his dying grandfather.
India’s supreme court reportedly said there should be no clampdown if people aired their grievances around issues like oxygen shortage and others on social platforms. It came after the federal government, under new regulations, ordered social platforms to take down posts that were critical of how it was handling the pandemic, according to the New York Times.
Another unfortunate outcome has been the prevalence of a black market for resources, where bad faith actors on social media have swindled vulnerable people, according to Gupta.
“While on the whole, social media — especially Twitter — has come and mitigated the harmful impact of the present wave, I would say even led to saving lives, it has also demonstrated that there is a very low tolerance for freedom of speech and expression,” he said.
In addition to that, “there are law and order issues, which always emerge due to social interaction … and certain participants may use it in bad faith,” he added.
Gupta added that while efforts are still continuing today among volunteer groups, state services have also caught up to an extent.