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 a covid.
Bansal lives with 14 other family members in Delhi and two weeks ago she started to experience symptoms of covid. Even though she was isolating herself, all of her family soon began to show signs of infection. As the situation got worse, 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 via WhatsApp was the wrong number, or supplies were out of stock.
Bansal’s friends intervened. They scoured Twitter and Instagram, found vendors, and started calling one after another. After a hundred calls, a lead materialized, and Bansal – who is now recovering from a covid – went to get 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 make a big deal out of it,” she said.
She also said it was essential to have a team of family members and friends looking up: “If I had called them alone I would have been exhausted, but as my friends were helping one numbers worked. Otherwise, it takes a long time and is daunting. ”
The limits of crowdsourcing
While volunteers disseminate information on social media, others have helped bring it together. Umang Galaiya, a 25-year-old software engineer, built the website covid19-twitter.in, which started out as a place where people could search for city-specific resources and started adding keywords over time: beds, oxygen, remdesivir, FabiFlu. Over 200,000 people visited this website in less than a week.
Twitter, for its part, is creating a resource list shared by verified users.
But online crowdsourcing isn’t helping everyone who needs it. India has a little more 2 million Twitter users and around 28 million Instagram users, which is a fraction of almost 700 million Internet users in the country – and that in itself represents only about half of the population of 1.36 billion people. There is a lot of people who don’t know what Twitter is, or how to use it. As covid invades rural parts of the country – nearly half of a village in southern India has been tested positive, according to reports, people are finding different ways to overcome the digital divide. Padmini Ray Murray, founder of technology design firm Design Beku, says: “While websites like Instagram and Twitter have helped create a network that has enabled many people to find information and share, they are exclusive and they are elite, leaving the majority of the Indian population to fend for themselves. ”
Murray woke up one morning last week and decided to design a website, Oxygenblr.in, for speakers of English and the local language, Kannada, in Bangalore. The site has ambulance phone numbers and information on the availability of oxygen and beds, home care, blood donation, etc. She said: “I felt it was necessary to recover all this content from these [social media] platforms, then place it in a static space that people can access. “
A role for government
As small-scale digital efforts take off, bigger collaborations are starting to emerge: help is on the way from the Indian tech sector, as investors and startups charter flights for oxygen cylinders and concentrators. Many also gathered to raise about $ 10 million for oxygen, vaccines and home care, while others are working campaigns to raise funds in cryptocurrency.
But as citizens struggle to find their own solutions, experts have criticized the government’s approach. For example, they highlight how Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on TV as business got out of hand and, instead of commenting on the true scope of the crisis, simply request Indians to be more careful. Modi’s political party also mentionned on Twitter that free vaccines in a state would be conditional on an electoral victory.
It comes after the government authorized massive public rallies and ordered only a fraction of the vaccines needed to meet vaccination targets, even though India is one of the world’s largest vaccine producers. In February the country given more than 3 million doses of vaccine to its neighboring countries, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, but was later critical so as not to give priority to its own citizens.