‘Please Help!’: Covid Tragedy Spills Onto Social Media in India

Saritha Rai and Supriya Batra
·5 min read

(Bloomberg) -- These days, social media posts in India are no longer about cheeky photos, funny memes or political jokes. Instead, frantic calls to save lives are flooding Twitter and Instagram as the latest wave of coronavirus cases and deaths overwhelm the nation’s hospitals and crematoriums.

On Bharath Pottekkat’s Instagram feed, one message screams “Mumbai please help! Lungs damaged due to pneumonia infection. In need of ICU bed.” Another reads “Plasma urgently required for treatment of Covid patient in Max Hospital, Delhi.” More follow. “Urgently needed Tocilizumab injection. Please DM if you know of stock in and around Mumbai.”

New appeals land with every refresh. “My brain can’t handle the social media overload,” said Pottekkat, a 20-year-old Delhi law student. “I can’t process what I’m reading. I feel numb.”

Read more: There’s a New Virus Variant in India. How Worried Should We Be?

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Telegram are all inundated with messages from distraught family members and friends begging for everything from hospital beds to medicines, CT scans, doorstep Covid tests, and even food for the elderly in quarantine.

The desperate pleas, hoping someone will respond with a speedy remedy, offer a peek into the unfolding tragedy buffeting a country of 1.3 billion people that now has the world’s fastest-growing Covid-19 caseload. The messages also reveal the panic and disarray amid shortages of drugs, intensive-care beds and medical oxygen.

Highlighting the grim situation, India on Thursday reported a record 2,104 new Covid-19 deaths, and an unprecedented 314,835 fresh cases — the world’s highest daily tally. Total infections of almost 16 million is the second-highest in the world. Despite being home to the world’s biggest vaccine maker, the country is struggling to provide enough shots. Large festivals and elections that led to mass gatherings, and lower vigilance around masks and social distancing have contributed to the resurgence.

The surge has forced both India’s financial and political capitals — Mumbai and New Delhi — to impose restrictions on movement, with the latter mandating a six-day strict lockdown starting April 20. Maharashtra state, home to Mumbai, tightened curbs starting Thursday.

Read more: Modi Under Fire for Campaigning as India Reels From Virus Deaths

One particular Instagram post rattled Pottekkat. A woman at her mother’s bedside described an apocalyptic scene at a hospital in the northern city of Lucknow, where people got into a scuffle to lay their hands on a fresh batch of oxygen cylinders that just arrived. Separately, a hospital chain in New Delhi approached a court to help secure the critical gas.

Barkha Dutt, a journalist, pointed out the shortage of crematoriums around the country, tweeting pictures of a cremation ground in Surat, a city in the western state of Gujarat.

Nowhere is the desperation more evident than in the social media feed of Ranjan Pai, the billionaire owner and co-founder of Manipal Education & Medical Group, which runs the country’s second-largest hospital chain -- the TPG and Temasek-backed Manipal Health Enterprises Pvt. Pai is deluged with DMs from hundreds of people, mostly strangers, asking him for ICU beds, oxygen supply and Covid drugs. The 7,000 beds in his 27-hospital chain are full.

“We were caught off-guard,” Pai said. “No country is equipped to handle a surge this fast and this severe.”

In February, only 4% of Manipal’s beds were taken by coronavirus patients. A few weeks later, that number has climbed to 65%, the rest already occupied by emergency cardiac, oncology and other patients. Pai’s hospitals, doctors and administrators are stretched to the limit, he said.

India’s stocks and the rupee have taken a hit on concern the latest surge and curbs will pummel the $2.9 trillion economy that was just recovering from a rare recession last year. The benchmark S&P BSE Sensex is down almost 8% from its Feb. 15 record, while the rupee is approaching an all-time low.

Read Andy Mukherjee’s column: How a Covid Spike Sucked the Oxygen Out of India

The collapse of the country’s decrepit public health system is evident in the gut-wrenching photos on social media of multiple Covid patients sharing a single hospital bed, a line of ambulances outside a hospital in Mumbai, and people dying as they wait for oxygen. Government helplines are broken. Thousands of social media forwards plead for the antiviral drug Remdesivir, and many more seek donor plasma.

There’s however a bright side to this mayhem. Responders from students to technology professionals, non-profit organizations and even Bollywood actors like Sonu Sood are rallying to supply meals, circulate information on availability of hospital beds or Remdesivir. They’ve amplified voices of those in need of emergency help. Total strangers are volunteering to bring supplies and food to patients’ doorsteps.

Those who put together crowd-sourced, authentic information on social media are today’s heroes in the current situation, said Vikas Chawla, co-founder of Chennai-headquartered digital agency, Social Beat.

“It takes just a few people to step forward and make it happen,” Chawla said.

(Updates with total infections in sixth paragraph. An earlier version corrected the name of an actor in 14th paragraph.)

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