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For Indians in the grip of a Covid-19 crisis, Twitter is a desperate last resort

With the country's healthcare system on its knees and the government at a loss, Indians have turned to their social media feeds.

23 Apr 2021

“I am right now cremating one of my family members […] and meanwhile trying to arrange Oxygen Concentrator for other family members who are all Corona Positive,” posted Twitter user Archana Sharma on 22 April. “I am all broken and nothing is helping. Please help me, I am begging you please!”

In less than an hour, Sharma – a rehabilitation counsellor living in India – saw her plea garner over 150 replies. Some users responded with messages of empathy and support like “stay strong”; others passed on details of locations where oxygen cans could allegedly be found. 

Archana Sharma’s desperate missive wasn’t sent in isolation. As the country faces a severe spike in Covid-19 cases, Twitter has seen an influx of heartbreaking posts by Indians seeking urgent help from virtual strangers. In the midst of the crisis, the platform has transformed from a social media network into a grim quasi-medical register, documenting  the nation’s crumbling medical infrastructure in real-time.

“As the country faces a severe spike in Covid-19 cases, Twitter has seen an influx of heartbreaking posts by Indians seeking urgent help from virtual strangers”

Suddenly Twitter has become a pandemic hotline, where Indian citizens search for everything from oxygen tanks and plasma to hospital beds, while others boost their frantic requests. Incidents at oversubscribed hospitals have also taken lives. Today in Mumbai, a fire outbreak killed 13 patients in an intensive care unit. Two days earlier, an oxygen leak in Delhi killed 22 Covid patients.

The system is under deep strain and the statistics say it all. On 22 April – the same day Archana Sharma was trying to find oxygen for her struggling family – India reported the highest daily increase worldwide (314,835) in Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Hours later, India’s capital, Delhi, announced there were just 26 vacant ICU beds across the city. And, despite India being the largest Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer in the world, the country is facing a dire shortage of jabs as it is forced to fulfil export contracts to the US and Europe. 

The deluge of tweets encapsulates the scale of this disaster. The country was wholly unprepared for the second wave of the virus, despite being forewarned by the fate of other countries. Instead, BJP – India’s ruling party – spent much of early 2021 congratulating themselves for “defeating” Covid-19. In a February resolution the BJP declared that “it can be said with pride that India […] defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi”. 

Three months later and India’s current Covid-19 outbreak accounted for nearly 28 percent of new cases globally in the past week alone. The country is also home to a new Covid-19 variant, with scientists currently determining if it poses more danger than previous mutations.  With all this going on, it is unsurprising that the Indian Supreme Court has labelled the situation a ‘national emergency’

It was not too long ago when India reported significantly lower Covid-19 numbers than other countries, both in cases and in deaths. Yet a number of errors pushed the country into its current downward spiral. Massive ‘superspreader’ events were allowed to take place over the past few months: election rallies continued to be held by the BJP, while hundreds of thousands of people took part in Kumbh Mela, a week-long Hindu festival, at the Ganges river. Dr. Ramanan Laxminaryan, an economist and epidemiologist at the Center of Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, writes that India’s crisis “is a direct result of complacency and preparation by the government”.

Without a doubt, governmental failures have contributed to the dire situation. But there’s another factor at play: the country has been neglected by the Global North when it comes to vaccine supplies and rollout. Recently, the United States and the United Kingdom limited exportations of Covid-19 vaccine production materials, causing the shortage in India. In February, American President Joe Biden also put the US Defense Production Act into place, limiting manufacturing supplies. This is causing a delay in essential supplies exported to India, slowing down vaccine production in the country. The European Union has implemented similar limits. At the same time, India has provided the Global North with much of its vaccine supply, with less of their production being utilised domestically.

Though some nations, including the UK, appear to be transitioning from the ‘crisis’ period caused by second waves of the virus, this is not the case globally. Brazil had the second highest death rate in the world as of 9 April, and like India, faces vaccine shortages. Elsewhere in Europe, France and Germany continue to see a rise in cases, prompting restrictions and partial lockdowns.

“Governmental failures have contributed to the dire situation. But there’s another factor at play: the country has been neglected by the Global North when it comes to vaccine supplies and rollout”

Within India, there are frenzied efforts now being put into place to combat the surge. Schools are being converted to hospitals and the country is attempting to import oxygen supplies. The government is also infusing cash into big pharma, including the Serum Institute of India. But perhaps such moves will have come too late to save the lives of those who required the government to amplify its pandemic-related efforts and preparation months ago. Already, the Lancet’s India Covid-19 task force says that the republic could see up to 2,300 Covid-related deaths a day by June 2021. 

While the show of mutual aid on Twitter can be considered a testament to human spirit, it simultaneously tells a horrifying tale. Basic medical resources are no longer a certainty for Indian citizens. Hospitals are overflowing, just as vaccine supplies are running low.Devastating footage shows people begging on the streets for hospitals to let them inside, some even sleeping on footpaths overnight. The healthcare system, say doctors, has “collapsed”. Prime minister Modi seems to have no plan. All Indians have left are each other and their social networks, where Twitter feeds have turned into death rolls. It is a damning reflection of the country’s lack of preparedness to save its citizens. The cost of this has been human lives. “The rot is very deep,” tweeted author Samrat Choudary on Thursday. “And Covid-19 has exposed it all”.