Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Covid-19: India's young step up to save lives

A group of 60-odd youngsters, who didn't know each other till a few weeks ago, are working tirelessly together to provide information on resources to those asking for help on micro-blogging platform Twitter

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Apr 27, 2021 01:05:03 PM IST
Updated: Apr 28, 2021 04:04:13 PM IST

Covid-19: India's young step up to save livesTwitter Warriors Nairit Gala and Anushka Jain

On April 17, Vinay Srivastava (65), a journalist from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, died after his oxygen levels dropped to an alarmingly 31 SpO2 percentage. Till his last breath, Srivastava kept posting on Twitter about his deteriorating health and kept begging the UP government to get medical help. He suffered for 20 hours, and his Covid-19 test report showed him as positive, after his death.

This incident shook 20-year-old Nairit Gala. “Whenever I recall this instance, it gives me the chills. Seeing someone die in front of you [virtually] is devastating. I could feel the hopelessness and anguish his family must have gone through. You can't let something like this slide. It was like a turning point for me,” says Gala, who is based in Mumbai. 

As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic gripped India, and the health care system buckled under its weight, microblogging site Twitter got flooded with tweets asking for help to get hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, Remdesivir, plasma, and other essentials for Covid-19 treatment. Gala wanted to help and do as much as he could for those in need. He started off with retweeting the SOS requests, only to realise that it was not enough, and something more had to be done. Gala started maintaining a database of resources and kept looking out for people who needed help. There were many others who are also actively providing leads to those looking for urgent support. 

During the course of his efforts, Gala was introduced to Anushka Jain (20) via Twitter who is also volunteering to provide leads to Covid-19 resources, after losing four close relatives to Covid-19. “After looking at people desperately asking for help on Twitter, I realised the shocking condition of this country. I immediately started retweeting and replying to as many tweets as possible. I felt this was not enough because a lot of tweets were being missed and needed more engagement,” says Indore-based Jain. 

Covid-19: India's young step up to save livesTwitter Warriors

After Gala put out a tweet asking for more people to help, the response was overwhelming. What started as a team of two last week is now a team of more than 60 volunteers, all between 18 and 25 years old. None of them personally know each other and are united by a single cause. 

Spread across the country, they are divided into different teams. One team keeps an eye on requests for help, another team gathers information on verified leads, while another collects leads from different sources and verifies them. The teams maintain a database in Google Drive, which has different documents containing verified information about hospital beds, ambulance services, oxygen and plasma availability, and so on. 

But despite these efforts, Jain and Gala knew they were still missing out on a lot of requests. “That’s when we decided to create a bot on Twitter. I had the structure ready and just needed some technical assistance to get it going. It was ready within some hours. So this bot automatically retweets requests and replies to them with our database link. In just 14 hours, we got 1,500 requests,” says Jain, who is pursuing B.Tech in Computer Science Engineering (CSE) from Medi-Caps University. 

Most of the volunteers are students who are managing exams and assignments alongside; some are managing office hours along with volunteering. “Out of 65 people working with us, three are Covid-positive. There are others whose family members are in hospital or in critical condition, and some of them have lost family members to Covid-19. They keep taking breaks whenever they want, but still remain strong and work dedicatedly to help others in need,” says Gala, who is studying finance at KPB Hinduja College, and is also an asset fund manager. Some volunteers end up working for more than 12 hours a day, with each of them contributing a minimum of 6 hours. The team is answering approximately 1,000 requests per day. 

There are, however, many instances in which the volunteers are unable to help people because resources are getting exhausted quickly; demand is clearly outweighing supply. “This is a major issue. All of us are working day and night, and yet we're unable to ensure that people get help from the leads we provide. But we try our best to provide leads within 5 to 10 minutes,” says Gala. 

The youngsters go through a lot of mental stress themselves after they are unable to help someone, and the patient dies before they can provide any leads. Instances like these leave them horrified, and most of them don’t know how to deal with it. “When we’re helping someone, we genuinely want to save their life. But when we lose them, we don’t even know how to deal with that shock. On April 21, a friend of mine was looking for an ICU bed for her mother,” recalls Jain. “By the time I collected leads and got back to her, I discovered that her mother had passed away. It was heart-breaking. I couldn’t work that day and took a day off. It was mentally exhausting.” 

The team is working on building a website since a lot of people don’t use Twitter. They’re also in the process of setting up and starting to provide help through messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to cater to more people. Gala has also managed to tie up with some NGOs and will soon be initiating a plasma donation drive so that the maximum number of people can donate it before getting vaccinated (a person cannot donate plasma after being vaccinated). 

“Whenever I feel low on energy, I look at the screenshots of the tweets which Mr Srivastava posted during his last hours. It reminds me that we cannot stop,” says Gala.

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