Life-saving 'social' bridge
A difference of life and death, comfort and pain, is made through the victorious efforts of compassionate beings through social media — albeit with limitations
When there seemed to be no solution in sight and an omnipresent gloom pervaded the entire space, there came individuals and groups determined to script the story of hope, resilience and victory over the mighty virus. With the outbreak of the pandemic last year, doomsday predictions were made that even kith and kin of affected human beings will distance themselves away; and dead bodies will be left to rot in confined spaces. The human endeavours in the rising second wave have proved these wrong with the help of new and powerful social communication tools such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn etc. Humanity has proved once again that it is capable of breathing in the most hostile scenarios.
Professionals from different fields are cutting time and space from their life and work to help people living and dying in distress. They have shouldered the task of coordinating and facilitating resources that has, to a great extent, failed the ones who are entrusted with it. These initiatives can potentially be scaled into more systematic setups, but one question that we need to ask is that if these are permanent solutions? Certainly not, these people are thankfully rendering their services as an emergency response; though some of them can even find new motives in the crisis situation! There is a limit to the time span for which individuals can curtail their personal and professional schedules. The concerned institutions need to step up their efforts and resources before the fatigue factor hits the rising prospect.
Moreover, the present situation needs to be handled with great care as there are serious risks associated with it. On the darker side, the social media influencing is offering conducive ground for black marketers to operate. Also, unverified information — which shares a major chunk of the leads — on social media will only torment the family members of affected persons rather than helping them. Nevertheless, these sincere human efforts need to be documented in history — remembered, told, and retold for times to come — to inspire generations and embolden their trust in humanity.
An alternative support system
Just to present fresh numbers — India has recorded around three and a half lakh daily cases and more than three thousand fatalities — making her stand unmatched both in COVID history and global landscape. The healthcare system is crumbling under the sudden massive spike of caseloads; the third pillar of our democracy has been forced to intervene in the matter; and Central and state governments are mudslinging each other to hide their own failures. India is making global headlines daily and Twitter posts from lawmakers, journalists, and filmmakers are withheld within the country! Do we need more to conclude that the system failed?
Many lesser-known organizations have been systematically rendering specific services through their social media handles. The number of such loosely organized platforms led by young and dynamic individuals has mushroomed during the past fortnight amid a threatening second wave rampage.
Many of the recent initiatives focus on the facilitation of extreme necessities like oxygen cylinders, ventilators, remedesivir, hospital beds etc. But the range of assistance provided by other groups is quite wide. Outlook India reported the efforts of Rishika Arora, a first-year BA student at Ashoka University, who has put out a tweet offering to help students of Covid-affected families with their assignments; while Dr Anusheel Anuj, a Delhi-based casualty medical officer, is offering free consultations to people suffering from mild cases of Covid-19 infection via the Internet and text messages.
Who can overlook the efforts of the Sikh community in the form of oxygen langars for left-out Covid patients at Indirapuram Gurudwara in Ghaziabad? The message conveying the opportunity spread like wildfire through social media —helping the needy.
Stars come to rescue
It is said that tough times are the best test of solidarity. While there is much to cry and flail over, people from all sections of society are contributing their part as per their potential, and certainly, every aid counts at present. The 'stars' we endorse the most have also shown a remarkable gesture of solidarity.
The renowned footballer Sunil Chhetri is living up to the promise he made on Twitter to hand over his account to a journalist who is actively working on the ground to help out people with verified leads about resources. This simply means that the verified leads provided by the journalist will reach out to a 1.6 million follower base — boosting the impact of his efforts. Isn't it a wonderful combine of dedicated service and an established fan base! This is just the first takeover and more of it is going to come in future. There are other efforts as well. John Abraham has extended his 3.2 million Twitter follower base to an NGO working in the direction to make a match between people's requirements and available resources.
Others are helping the cause in many different ways. We saw the Australian all-rounder cricketer Pat Cummins donate a massive sum of USD 50,000 to PM-CARES funds. Other celebrities like Ayushman Khurana along with his wife Tahira are making direct donations to the state relief funds. There are others who are fundraising for the cause. Priyanka Chopra has set up a fundraiser with a non-profit organization. Given that she has around 63 million followers on Instagram her efforts may translate into a massive sum.
At the same time, we have celebrities like Sameera Reddy who are focusing on specific issues like the effect of Covid on children through discussions. Celebrities have a great influence on people; proper communication on their part can make a huge difference.
The alternative support systems are holding their head high over the rising water level, but the crucial question is, how long?
Challenges they face
The path of heroics is often dotted with challenges. Social media influencers face a host of difficulties in their newly found roles. The first problem is that among the large quantum of leads they receive from various sources, many turn out to be fake or irrelevant. A Patna-based volunteer who is spearheading one such effort through a WhatsApp group, says that of the 10 leads their group receives, seven turn out to be futile. He is lucky to have a team of trained budding journalists who cross-check the authenticity of leads before passing them to needy persons. The quantum of leads received is massive but only a limited part of it comes in handy as most of the leads are either outdated or unresponsive. There have been multiple instances where the contact numbers provided belonged to unrelated persons who would frown upon being disturbed unnecessarily. The daunting task of verifying leads gets even more compounded with the daily professional work of most of the members associated with it.
Their group is inundated by requests ranging from plasma, oxygen, remdesivir and other life-saving drugs to hospitals beds, ambulances, ventilators and concentrators. The members are disheartened that they fail to meet a quarter of demands, and it is a breaking moment when despite their successful efforts to assemble aids, they fail in certain instances because the patient would have already breathed her/his last by then.
There is a line of distinction between facilitating resource access through social media and closed messaging applications. There are two downsides of using social media: 1) It becomes a treat for black marketers and hoarders. This rather than helping the cause leads to further chaos; and 2) In case of unverified leads, especially those offering mass scale help through some local leader, the chance of the message going viral gets amplified. If the lead is unauthentic it greatly adds to the woes of affected persons and family members or well-wishers.
Is the picture cosy in case the lead is authentic? It may seem so but it is not always. Many instances have come across, even in the national capital, where life-saving drugs and oxygen are sold at exorbitant prices.
Mental pressure of volunteers
A lighted candle spreads light but is never successful in removing the dark spot at its base. Imagine a situation when volunteers are working 14-16 hours a day; and despite their effort are unable to save certain lives. A gloom hits their inner core. They are forced to think if all they are doing makes sense (we know it does a great deal). Bravehearts who are determined to do whatever it takes; who are least distracted by the mental or physical fatigue, can stand anything but the flailing of family members of the deceased.
A Saharsa-based volunteer who works along with his group to bridge the demand and supply side of life-saving necessities during these tough times spoke of similar grief. They receive around 30-40 calls a day demanding help but only a fraction of these requirements are met. It takes a tough toll on the minds of volunteers. The impact becomes even more pronounced in case a delay results in the death of any Covid patient. This is a very grave concern because many compassionate and energetic youth are associated with it. Their mental well-being is greatly affected and could even have a long term impact on their mind.
Social media volunteering by youth in these turbulent times is indeed a heroic venture but it will be a grave fault to ignore the pathetic condition of helpers that remains subdued under the rising tide of glorious ventures. If the groups are small, they can coordinate among themselves to provide necessary consultations to individuals facing such trauma. On the other hand, large groups can constitute a separate unit for consultation — as they have done for coordinating with hospitals, doing sort of research work, reaching out to patients etc. Perhaps, independent consultants can fill the gap by rendering their services to groups of volunteers.
The state of internet penetration in India is still not very encouraging in India. This casts a shadow of uncertainty over the reach and universality of social media intervention. While we hail these extraordinary endeavours in extraordinary times, it should not divert our attention from the grievances of millions who are even unaware of the names like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc. It would certainly be a great injustice to the deprived sections of the society who form a major chunk of the Indian population. Soumyarendra Barik tweeted a part of his report for Entracker: So "What is Twitter? Can I get my wife hospitalised using that?" Akhil Prasad, who was standing outside the Sir Ganga
Ram hospital in Delhi on Friday said when asked about whether he had sought help on Twitter.
The social media initiatives are by and large restricted to metropolitans such as Delhi and Mumbai and some other smaller cities. There is a need for immediate intervention of governments to reach the underprivileged. Nothing could be worse if they are lost in the noise.
The vitality of relief being provided by groups of people is paramount but it has its own side effects. There is a widespread exchange of personal information on social media. It is obvious that crisis-hit people will push privacy-related concerns to the backfoot as they desperately seek help for their kith and kin. These concerns were raised by the tech website Bellingcat which put a detailed analysis of search terms during the past fortnight. The terms that figured at the top of search queries included Covid necessities like oxygen, remdesivir, ventilators, ambulances etc. coupled with their area of residence. Additionally, the information shared publicly included mentions of family members like 'father' and 'mother' among others. This reckless sharing of information will expose the needs and vulnerabilities, thereby making them prone to exploitation. Once things settle down, the aftereffects may show up in significant proportions. This is nowhere to demean the life-saving activities carried out by energetic and compassionate groups of individuals who respond to the demands put forward by the needy. After all, saving human lives is the topmost priority at this point of time. The social media companies and government must, however, take serious note of the situation so that the pandemic does not leave us with another of its malice in the afterlife of Covid.
There is certainly no doubt human endeavours through the use of newest of the social communication tools have come to the rescue of mankind when all hopes were fading away. Social media — often blamed for fuelling crisis situations — has shown the brighter this time. It is apt here to admit that these communication tools have time and again proved their worth and recorded their contribution in the pages of history whenever demanded.
The scale of the global pandemic is, however, too large to be solely rested upon the shoulders of social media. The state must step in vigorously to their assumed roles to take things under their control. Until then, it will be a remarkable gesture if they provide monetary, logistical and moral support to these emergency response ventures; rather than having a hostile approach towards them.
Moreover, social media support systems are spontaneous in nature. This poses serious repercussions ranging from boosting black markets and hoarding of life-saving resources to the spread of misinformation to data privacy issues. These initiatives cannot, and should not, be curbed but, certainly, be handled with great care.
The role of students and professionals from varied fields is commendable. Hats off to their efforts! But a distinction exists between mainstay support and contributory support systems — this must be taken serious note of.
Views expressed are personal