NEW DELHI — Rajni Gill woke up with a slight fever in mid-April, the first warning that she had COVID-19. Within a few days, she was breathless and nearly unconscious in a hospital.
Desperate to arrange plasma treatment for Gill, a gynecologist in the city of Noida, her family called doctors, friends, anyone they thought could help. Then her sister posted a plea on Facebook: “I am looking for a plasma donor for my sister who is hospitalized in Noida. She is B positive and is 43.”
The message, quickly amplified on Twitter, flashed across the phone of Srinivas B.V., an opposition politician in nearby Delhi, who was just then securing plasma for a college student. He deputized a volunteer donor to rush to the blood bank for Gill.
“The administration and systems have collapsed,” Srinivas said. “I have never seen so many people dying at the same time.”
“Mine and my team’s work may be a drop in the ocean — but a drop nevertheless,” he said.
With India’s health care system overwhelmed by India’s unprecedented COVID surge, which is bringing more than 400,000 new cases and thousands of deaths each day, desperate relatives and friends of the infected have resorted to sending SOS messages on social media. And many of those calls are being answered.
Some people need medical oxygen, which is nearly impossible to find in Delhi, the capital. Others are hunting for medicine that goes for high prices on the black market, or for ventilators that are exceedingly rare.
The pleas are reaching tech-savvy engineers, lawyers, nongovernmental organization workers, politicians, doctors and even tuk-tuk drivers, who have mobilized online to help the sick, some of them hundreds of miles away. Collectively, they have formed grassroots networks that are stepping in where state and national governments have failed.
It is a role that Srinivas, 38, has played before in times of crisis.
As the president of the opposition Indian National Congress party’s youth league, he has provided support after earthquakes and floods. He has worked to get textbooks to underprivileged children and medicine to people who couldn’t afford it.
Early last year, when the pandemic first struck and India locked down, Srinivas galvanized young volunteers across the country who distributed food for stranded migrants, along with more than 10 million masks. He now heads a team of 1,000 people, including 100 in Delhi, the center of the current outbreak.
The cries for help on Twitter and Facebook started spreading “like wildfire” in early April, Srinivas said. He created the hashtag #SOSIYC so people could connect to his organization, the Indian Youth Congress.
His team advertises for plasma donors online, and 5,000 have signed up. He also enlists psychologists to counsel donors about the four-hour procedure.
India’s loose online aid networks rely on tools and techniques commonly used in marketing and other forms of messaging on social media. Families tag people with large followings or specialized skills who might be able to amplify their messages, 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 started searching for the terms “verified,” “confirmed” and “available” on Twitter to track down specific leads on COVID supplies. He has since posted an 84-second video explaining 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 Murarka’s video and applied his own filters to search for beds, oxygen and medicine. He was able to get a particular medicine to a patient in Delhi after confirming that it was available in Hyderabad.
“Initially I felt very scared, that there are too many cases and that I will not be able to help at all,” Mishra said. “Now I am calling 20 leads per day and verifying their needs.”
Some people are tapping into resources around the world. Nikhil Jois, a technology executive in Bangalore, and his own team vetted charity organizations that supplied oxygen, food and sanitary napkins. He whittled his list down 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. And he began emailing executives, investors and bestselling authors in the United States, asking them to give.
“The most beautiful part of social media is that you trust strangers,” Jois said.
That, of course, is not always a good idea. Dubious accounts offer shoddy or exorbitantly priced goods to desperate people, and leads on supplies can quickly evaporate. And trolls will always inflict hate on the vulnerable.
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 put out a plea that went viral on Twitter. He felt helpless as his elderly aunt and uncle, about 130 miles away in Agra, struggled during the strict lockdown there.
His aunt suffers from a spinal disease, and his uncle, a diabetic, needs weekly dialysis. Unable to go out, they were eating just one meal a day. They couldn’t care for themselves, and at times they couldn’t make it to the bathroom.
Through LinkedIn, he found an organization that caters to seniors. He filled out a form, providing their information. The next morning, volunteers showed up at their doorstep with breakfast and adult diapers.
“Social media is like a godsend for us,” said an emotional Jain, who has lost one of his other relatives to COVID.
Even foreign diplomats in Delhi have reached out to his organization for help. On Sunday, the New Zealand High Commission tagged the Indian Youth Congress on Twitter in an appeal for oxygen cylinders. Since the group is part of the political opposition, that got a lot of attention, given the intense criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the pandemic. (The commission said its appeal had been “misinterpreted, for which we are sorry.”)
Srinivas’ volunteers use direct messaging to collect data on people needing help, then classify them by risk profile. They work with people on the ground to arrange beds and plasma donations for the most serious cases. Others are put in touch with doctors who can provide remote consultations.
Often, the system’s deficiencies are too great to overcome.
Mahua Ray Chaudhuri frantically tagged Srinivas looking for oxygen for her sick father. His team found some, but that wasn’t enough: No ICU beds were available.
“At least I could get him oxygen, and he died breathing,” Chaudhuri said by telephone, breaking down. “This help from strangers on Twitter was like a balm for our disturbed minds and souls.”
But Srinivas’ team was able to get plasma for Gill, the gynecologist, just in time. She is now recuperating in a hospital on the outskirts of Delhi.
She recently called Srinivas to thank him. “Though I have never met her, it was a humbling experience hearing her voice,” he said. “I am so relieved she made it.”