NEW DELHI – Rajni Gill woke up with a mild fever in mid-April, the first warning she had Covid-19. Within days, she was breathless and almost unconscious in a hospital.
Desperate to arrange plasma treatment for Ms Gill, a gynecologist in Noida City, her family called doctors, friends, anyone they thought they could help. Then her sister posted a plea on Facebook: “I am looking for a plasma donor for my sister hospitalized in Noida. She is B positive and is 43 years old. “
The message, quickly amplified on Twitter, was broadcast on the phone of Srinivas BV, an opposition politician in Delhi, who was then in the process of securing plasma for a student. He deputized for a voluntary donor to rush to the blood bank for Mrs. Gill.
“The administration and the systems have collapsed,” Srinivas said. “I have never seen so many people die at the same time.”
“Mine and the work of my team may be a drop in the ocean, but a drop nonetheless,” he said.
With India’s healthcare system overwhelmed by the unprecedented surge of Covid in India, which results in around 400,000 new cases and thousands of deaths every day, desperate relatives and friends of those infected have resorted to sending SOS messages on social networks. And many of those calls are answered.
Some people need medical oxygen, which is almost impossible to find in Delhi, the capital. Others are looking for drugs that are sold at high prices on the black market or extremely rare ventilators.
Calls reach engineers, lawyers, NGO workers, politicians, doctors and even tuk-tuk pilots, who mobilized online to help the sick, some of them hundreds of kilometers away. Collectively, they have formed grassroots networks that intervene where state and national governments have failed.
This is a role Mr Srinivas, 38, has previously played in times of crisis.
As chairman of the youth league of the opposition party of the Indian National Congress, he has provided support after natural disasters including earthquakes and floods. He worked to provide books to underprivileged children and medicine to those who could not afford them.
Early last year, when the pandemic first struck and India shut down, Mr Srinivas galvanized young volunteers across the country who distributed food to stranded migrants, as well. than more than 10 million masks. He now heads a team of 1,000 people, including 100 in Delhi, at the center of the current epidemic.
“I grew up on the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi,” said Mr. Srinivas, who aspired to be a cricketer before entering politics. “I can’t believe I’m here today trying to help so many people.”
Cries for help on Twitter and Facebook started to spread “like wildfire” in early April, Srinivas said. He created the hashtag #SOSIYC so people can connect with his organization, the Indian Youth Congress.
His team advertises plasma donors online, and 5,000 have signed up. He also hires psychologists to advise donors on the four-hour procedure.
India’s online help networks are based on tools and techniques commonly used in marketing and other forms of social media messaging. Families identify people with many followers or specialized skills who might be able to amplify their posts, while volunteer organizers use keywords to filter the flood of requests.
Abhishek Murarka, who works in finance in Mumbai, decided he needed to do more than retweet messages. He began to search for the terms “verified,” “confirmed” and “available” on Twitter to locate specific leads on Covid supplies. He has since posted a 84-second video explain his techniques so that others can use them.
Hundreds of miles away, Praveen Mishra, 20, who runs a startup in the southern city of Bangalore, studied Mr Murarka’s video and applied his own filters to search for beds, oxygen and drugs. He was able to provide a particular drug to a patient in Delhi after confirming that it was available in Hyderabad.
“At first I felt very scared that there were too many cases and I couldn’t help at all,” Mishra said. “Now I call 20 prospects a day and check their needs.”
Some people are exploiting resources all over the world. Nikhil Jois, a tech executive in Bangalore, and his own team looked at charities that provided oxygen, food, and sanitary napkins. He narrowed his list to just over a dozen organizations, some of which could accept international donations.
His team then asked several companies in India to link to the list on their apps or websites. And he started emailing executives, investors, and bestselling authors in the United States, asking them to donate.
“The best part about social media is that you trust strangers,” Jois said.
This is of course not always a good idea. Questionable accounts offer shoddy or exorbitantly priced products to desperate people, and supply routes can quickly evaporate. And trolls will always inflict hatred on vulnerable people.
But with India in crisis and travel not a safe option, social media has been the only way for some people to find help.
Aditya Jain, who is in Delhi, recently launched a plea that has gone viral on Twitter. He felt helpless as his aged aunt and uncle, about 130 miles away in Agra, struggled during the strict lockdown.
Her aunt suffers from a disease of the spine and her uncle, who has diabetes, needs weekly dialysis. Unable to go out, they ate only one meal a day. They couldn’t take care of themselves, and sometimes they couldn’t make it to the bathroom.
Thanks to LinkedIn, he found an organization that caters to seniors. He filled out a form, providing their names, location and other information. The next morning, volunteers showed up at their doorstep with breakfast and adult diapers.
“Social media is like a boon to us,” said an emotional Mr Jain, who lost one of his other relatives to Covid.
Mr Srinivas said he receives at least 10,000 messages on Twitter every day and follows up on them. For every 100 requests, he says, it can typically help 30 to 40 people, given the shortages.
Even foreign diplomats in Delhi have asked his organization for help. The New Zealand High Commission on Sunday tagged the Indian Youth Congress on Twitter in a call for oxygen cylinders. Since the group is part of the political opposition, this got a lot of attention, given the intense criticism of the handling of the pandemic by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (The commission said its appeal was “misinterpreted, for which we are sorry.”)
Mr. Srinivas’ volunteers use direct messaging to collect data on who needs help and then categorize it by risk profile. They work with people in the field to organize hospital beds and plasma donations for the most serious cases. Others are put in touch with doctors who can provide remote consultations.
Often the gaps in the system are too great to overcome.
Mahua Ray Chaudhuri frantically tagged Mr. Srinivas in search of oxygen for his ailing father. His team found some, but it was not enough: no intensive care bed was available.
“At least I was able to get him some oxygen, and he died breathing,” Chaudhuri said over the phone, collapsing. “This help from strangers on Twitter was like a balm for our deranged minds and souls.”
But Mr. Srinivas’ team was able to get plasma for Mrs. Gill, the gynecologist, just in time. She is now recovering in a hospital on the outskirts of Delhi.
“I feel suffocated by emotions,” she says. “Coming out of such a fatal period, I realize that I have been selflessly helped by complete strangers.”
She recently called Mr. Srinivas to thank him. “Even though I’ve never met her, it was a humbling experience to hear her voice,” he said. “I am so relieved that she succeeded.