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May 6, 2021

Covid-19 helplines

Death, sickness, and helplessness have become the ‘new normal’ that Indians are being forced to live with as they witness the collapse of an already inadequate health care system and the failure of its political system that was caught napping on the uptick of cases, which showed an upward trend as far back as February.

For many families, who have been left to their own devices, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are now being used to search for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medications for loved ones. These platforms have become the ‘Covid-19 helplines’ for most Indians. Ironically, instead of helping its citizens in their hour of need, the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy trying “to control the narrative” on social media sites like Twitter by asking the company to take down tweets that are critical of its handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Even as the crisis continues to engulf the country, the government had distanced itself from any blame for allowing this surge in cases resulting from allowing religious congregations like Kumbh Mela and holding political rallies.

India’s 1.38 billion citizens largely feel abandoned by the government they helped vote into power in 2019. Fighting lone battles for the lives of their loved ones has proved to be an uphill task, leading them to turn to each other for help.

On a daily basis, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds are flooded with requests for oxygen cylinders – which are in dire shortage, especially in Delhi – as well as hospital beds, medications for critically ill patients and availability of plasma donations.

“[P]eople are bypassing the conventional lines of communication and turning to Twitter to crowdsource help” during the crisis of India’s second COVID-19 wave, according to an article in Mint.

The responsibility of providing medical oxygen lies with the central government, a fact that the courts in India have also highlighted while asking the center to employ whatever means necessary to supply oxygen to hospitals, especially in Delhi. Meanwhile, the center is now trying to pass on the blame for the shortages in the health care system to the states.

In all of this, social media has played an important role in filling in the information gap relating to the availability of beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines. There are some who have been lucky to receive the help they need to save a loved one, but a majority of Indians live in rural areas, and many of them do not have “access to a smartphone or use social media,” according to an article in the Wire: “For the vast majority of Indians struggling to get help, repeatedly calling inundated phone lines or carrying patients to emergency wards in person is the only option—highlighting the impact of the country’s digital divide.”

Instead of responding to the pleas for help by its citizens, the Indian government is instead carrying out a face-saving exercise by asking social media platforms to take down posts that are ‘critical’ of its handling of the Covid-19 situation.

“Twitter recently removed around 50 posts and URLs that were ordered to be taken down by the Indian government. Other social media platforms like Facebook have also removed 50 posts. The posts that have been taken down were reportedly criticizing the government for poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis in the country amid the second wave of the pandemic,” reported Mint.

India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asked that these posts be removed to “‘prevent obstructions in the fight against the pandemic’ and disruption of public order due to the said posts,” according to the Mint article.

Excerpted: ‘How India Has Creatively Turned Social Media Into a COVID-19 Helpline to Battle the Pandemic’