When the tsunami that is India’s second wave of Covid-19 began, stray requests for help started to appear on social media groups and then suddenly turned into a deluge. As a social media sceptic, I did not anticipate the invaluable relief these platforms would serve.

The fact is that these forums have become the recourse of first call and response for Indian citizens. From WhatsApp to Twitter and Facebook to Instagram, agony and relief are spilling out in various languages.

Social media heroes like actor Sonu Sood, justifiably praised in the past for the succour he provided to those who made appeals to him on Twitter, is now himself raising alarms about oxygen running out in a Delhi hospital.

To parse the genuine from the generic, the hashtag “verified” is the silver lining sought when information is mined real-time relief. From the minute a message asking for oxygen, remdesivir or plasma appears on WhatsApp, anyone who reads the chat is acutely aware that time is of essence for saving a life.

During an emergency, when anyone could be a potential lead, some stray responses do get circulated. Sometimes they may be generic helpline numbers or unverified leads – and end up wasting even more critical time. However, the fact remains that social media is the real SOS helpline most citizens are using.

As a recent article in The Wire noted, “Between March 1 and April 21, 2021, more than 519,000 individual accounts actively engaged with SOS and emergency tweets from other Indian users to help provide relevant information or medical aid. The engagement of ordinary Indian citizens far outweighed that of prominent social media influencers as well as other public figures in media and government.”

The disproportionate use of Twitter is curious, given its small slice of the social media pie in India.

Gap between demand and supply

While the supply of resources may indeed not be adequate to meet the demand, the fact is anyone in this situation would try all means available. It’s a strange case where the infamous “slacktivism” of social media might yet have a real-world impact. With the foot soldiers of families running around in circles trying to find beds or medical supplies, the family infantry also needs the artillery of crowdsourced information generated off leads from social media.

Despite the governmental attempts to block news of shortages by getting Twitter to take off some posts, the limited user base of this platform has still managed to amplify real world need.

Our virtual lives are now pressing up against our material shortages. The key to navigating the maze of demand and supply, though, is to be found in these random acts of search and find. Hence the resources needed to conduct such a search are also equally important during these critical times.

While Twitter is the first port of call, like the fastest finger on the buzzer, resources for non-metro cities are not so abundantly found here. Searches for Kota, Indore, Durgapur and Mysore seem to pull up more information on platforms like Telegram and Instagram than Twitter.

What is surprising for a nation of techies is that while civic efforts to arrange the spreadsheets with local information is abundant, we still don’t have a single app or site that integrates these resources in a responsible way.

Still, some initiatives stand out. For instance, the efforts of the Uncut team are impressive and even more so when one googles its architect, Bhavya Mohindru, who turns out to be a 16-year-old high-schooler in Delhi’s Saket neighbourhood.

As the Uncut site says, the team “curated and compiled a list of Covid-19 related resources (including available beds, oxygen cylinders, plasma donors, food services etc)”. These resources, arranged as spreadsheets of data across Indian cities, is immensely useful as a primary go to in locating phone numbers and other information.

In addition to main cities, social media groups using phone platforms are also useful to comb through when trying to reach a more remote resource. This list covers Whatsapp and Telegram groups across states and cities.

While we live through this nightmare of an emergency and many of us field frantic calls from all around the country, the thoughtfulness put into assembling data by many efforts that go unnamed such as oxygenblr.in, Covid Fight Club, dashboards such as Sprinklr, coviddelhi.com and covidpune.com and many more need to be further amplified for public use.

For anyone running a real time need, do consider this sequence of steps and hopefully something will yield a result depending on where the need is located.

Searching effectively

  •   In real time, the most useful search to run for a local solution may be found at covid19-twitter.in or others.  
  •   Several all-India master lists with descriptions contain official contacts by city or state. Since the data is dynamic they now often have a column that ascertains verification also.  
  • This list is a social media directory for handles across platforms in non-metro cities in India that supplements official and institutional contacts and also to casts a light on relevant bottom-up views of citizen efforts.  
  •   While many datasets have been circulating in the open domain,  some of that information  may not be accurate or up to date. Excellent efforts are underway to verifying entries. A database of medical needs in India across categories with remarks on verification is available for real time updates.  

Maya Dodd is Associate Professor in Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University. Her recent work is featured in Exploring Digital Humanities in India (Routledge, 2020) and Media Cultures in Transnational Asia (Rutgers 2020).