Helping Handles: How social media and youth stood hand-in-hand as a digital COVID helpline

Where the government machinery failed, India's youth harnessed the power of social media to enable their fellow countrymen to access critical healthcare and survive.

Published: 02nd May 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd May 2021 11:21 AM   |  A+A-

Health workers attend to COVID-19 patients at a makeshift hospital in New Delhi

Health workers attend to COVID-19 patients at a makeshift hospital in New Delhi. (Photo| AP)

Arushi Chaddha's father was dying. The oxygen supply of the hospital, like in hospitals across Delhi, was running on fumes. Most people knew, or knew of someone who had died. Her only hope was the kindness of strangers.

On April 23, at 11.30 am, Chaddha posted on Instagram: "Lungs damaged. Oxygen level dropped to 70. Hospital is refusing to keep my father for more than a couple of hours due to the shortage of medical oxygen. My father will die."

In a short while, her DM was inundated with messages offering leads. One such message was from Suhail Shetty, who took down Chaddha's details and made several phone calls to his friends and relatives to get an oxygen concentrator. On April 25, at 2.20 am, he managed to arrange one.

He drove at breakneck speed in the middle of the night to the hospital where Chaddha’s father was admitted. "When I shared my number with him on Instagram, I thought I had made a blunder. I worried about being stalked or harassed, but when I saw Shetty bhai at the hospital, I trembled with relief. I couldn’t believe he had done this for us," Chaddha confesses.

Her father came home recovered, thanks to people like Shetty. "A perfect stranger saved his life," she marvels. Scenes like this are playing across the country where sobbing doctors and bone-tired nurses are trying to save lives, and hospital managements are desperately sending out SOS after SOS for the life-saving gas.

When Twitter cowered before government anger and shut down handles that exposed the horror of medical services' paucity and mass funerals, ordinary citizens from all walks of life used social media to rescue their fellow men gasping for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and rare medicines that had gone off the shelves overnight, in addition to arranging ambulances and plasma. Instagram, particularly, has become the unofficial disaster management agency of India.

Facebook, WhatsApp and even Twitter now offer information that could and does save lives. Many Shettys have emerged in India’s battle with the second wave of the pandemic. Take the case of Mumbai’s Sachin Singhal.

He was on the phone, desperately trying to arrange a plasma donor for his 61-year-old mother, who had developed pneumonia and was feeling excessively breathless. "The plasma bank turned us down due to shortage. I broadcast a message on WhatsApp, but wasn’t sure it would help. I received messages from three people within two hours offering assistance. Such is the power of humanity in these appalling times," says Singhal.

At the forefront of the COVID-19 fight is India’s youth students, professionals and entrepreneurs. The girls of Miranda House, Delhi, have formed a 24/7 COVID-19 help desk operated by 300 students. They acquaint callers on testing, treatment, hospitalisation, oxygen support facilities, mental health, counselling and food services.

Volunteers across the country have come together as governments and the bureaucracy drown in the sheer complexity of catching up too little, too late. The Instagram group COVID Aid Resources India comprises student-volunteers working round the clock to post and update accurate information. They also upload videos of protocol violations, and insist on verification.

Three engineering graduates from IIT-Delhi have launched 'CovRelief', a free mobile app that has live-tracking of vacant hospital beds across 15 cities in India. It shares data on oxygen and plasma availability.

On the Instagram page of Nadora Initiative, hashtags such as #hospitalbedsindelhi and #hospitalbedsinpunjab circulate the status of available beds in private, public and volunteer healthcare centres.

Phone numbers of centres with oxygen beds are available online. For example, Lakshmibai College in Ashok Vihar, Delhi, has #oxygenbedsleads to inform searchers. The phone numbers of verified oxygen providers in Delhi are posted on Instagram, including this one: 9999869483. Cov.id911 shows graphics of a date-wise list of functional COVID-19 Vaccine Centres.

Thiruvananthapuram-resident Sweta Harimohanan, a BA student of Performing Arts in Carnatic music, heard about the appalling oxygen shortage in the country.  She began to call up a number of private hospitals at random inquiry about the status of their oxygen supplies. One of them happened to be in Mumbai.

"This hospital had non-ICU oxygen beds, which was big news since most of the others I had called had none. I posted this information on my Instagram page. Later that day, I got to know that a friend’s father, who was struggling to get a bed, saw my message and contacted the hospital," Sweta says.

This friend was her follower on Instagram. Harimohanan has also been posting SOS messages regarding the availability of emergency supplies on her social handles. The challenges this time are very different from last year.

"Then, our work was straightforward. We were supplying food and medicines. Now it is oxygen and ICU beds. It's a horrifying scenario," says TMK Karthik, actor and volunteer in Chennai.

K Yashini, an IT employee in Madurai, is working with a group of friends to regularly share information on hospitals treating COVID-19 patients so that people don’t panic for beds. On their own, Nupur and Rahul Agarwal contacted hospitals and doctors in Mumbai and found there was a shortage of 3,000 oxygen concentrators.

Their 'Mission Oxygen' started with the aim of procuring 500 oxygen concentrators with public contributions but received enough for 865 in 48 hours. The number had gone up to 1,500 by April 26. Telephone numbers of the BMC department in Mumbai dealing with beds and ambulances are posted online by private individuals.

Instagram posts from altruists like Sameena Talwar of Moolchand Hospital, Delhi, urge people with the means and resources to come forward. A post with pan-India number on Instagram (7829980066) asks you to give a missed call for instructions by SMS to procure Remdesivir.

"Then you’ll be contacted. Works 100 percent. Just be patient," it reads. COVID Lifeline India gives relevant information on the drug, which is not life-saving and should not be used unnecessarily.

The instagram page belongs to a group of doctors and medical students offering counselling, information and advice to patients to know the best practices and face mental health issues, anyone can DM them.

The page has information about a free oxygen cylinder service available on 9818936934 and 9971265674. The Hemkunt Foundation in Gurugram organises free oxygen cylinder drive-throughs where desperate patients mask up to breathe the gas while sitting in their vehicles the link to Google Maps gives the location.

The Foundation, which is seeking donations and other medical resources, has been distributing truckloads of free oxygen cylinders in Gurugram to critical patients.

They have opened their second free oxygen cylinder collection centre in Versova, Mumbai. After Delhi and Mumbai ran out of cylinders, oxygen was procured from other cities. They do not extend free resources without verifying the patient’s condition and documents.

The Foundation has posted directions for patients seeking free treatment to contact a 1,000-bed Covid-19 care hospital in Delhi manned by Army doctors and nurses; call Major General Bhatia on 9654895961.

A civilian oxygen army in the National Capital has emerged offering help. Some are providing oxygen refills for free, while others are charging a nominal fee. Mohit Arora from Sewa Satkar Trust is providing free oxygen cylinders to the critically ill but his stocks will also soon run out.

Similarly, Faisal Khaliq from the Masjid and Madrasa Amania Trust has been distributing oxygen cylinders in the city. The American India Foundation is raising money to import oxygen cylinders, concentrators, ventilators, portable hospitals and other life-saving infrastructure and supplies to India.

Covid Care Exchange requests people to write to to share unused or partially used medical supplies such as oxygen cylinders and concentrators, oximeters and drugs like Medrol, Remdesivir and Fabiflu.

Citizens are fighting the shortage of ambulances with selfies showing their visiting cards with contact numbers. The Simply Blood community, which has data on 1,30,000 blood donors who saved more than 27,000 potential lives, invites you to register as a donor. Doctors are posting ITV recommendations for Covid patients.

More voluntary organisations have stepped up. Seventeen NGOs in Hyderabad banded together as 'Telangana NGO Founders Covid Group' to coordinate help to affected families and individuals. Born in June 2020, it is the inspiration of Jasper Paul, who runs the Second Chance Foundation in Yapral, a suburb of Hyderabad.

Paul has enrolled all active NGOs in the city such as Robin Hood Army Hyderabad, Youngistaan Foundation, Bring A Smile Foundation and Telangana Surge Impact Group. They arrange remote home-care packages to help with vaccination.

Shaik Nayeem of Kriya Sangh, an NGO based in Rasoolpura, the largest slum in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, is spreading the word online regarding items in short supply in the settlements.

After Nayeem started a free COVID ambulance service in Hyderabad, he did a 'shoutout' on Facebook seeking free safety gear for volunteers operating the service. In less than two days, he got 200 N95 masks, two boxes of surgical gloves, 10 litres of Sodium Hypochlorite, 20 PPE kits and 40 face shields from friends and followers. 

"I've received requests and donations via social media and WhatsApp. I’m glad that we don’t have to spend money on getting the word through," he says.

Mohammed Shujatullah, the founder of Hyderabad’s Humanity First Foundation, is helping especially those from low-income groups get oxygen cylinders. He has been requesting donations, even small contributions, to aid those battling the virus.

Meme pages such as @TheTeluguDude @Chaibisket with more than 25k followers on Instagram share appeals and urgent posts from others. Chintu Nagarjuna Yadav, who runs the Blood Donors Life Savers network for blood and plasma donation in Hyderabad, avers that Instagram is the best place to communicate because the youngsters on social media share posts online, thereby connecting the dots to the final conclusion.

While most good Samaritans in Hyderabad are focusing on medicine distribution, oxygen cylinders and other medical aid, online platform IndiaCares, launched by senior Odisha-cadre IPS officer Arun Bothra, has 3,500 boots on the ground working overnight.

Many of them are on their feet 18 hours a day to arrange beds, oxygen and medicines for patients. Their services are free and they connect vendors and patients for medicines and oxygen cylinders. Sometimes they even arrange for doorstep delivery to patients, who cannot get hospital admission. Once the beds are organised, the patients or their relatives are informed immediately. NRIs are chipping in too.

The target of the Punjabi Chamber of Commerce, a meeting point for the global Indian Punjabi diaspora for commerce and cooperation, is to help India breathe. Through 'Oxygen for All', it is raising funds for oxygen concentrators and other issues. The first terminal will be at Bangla Sahib Hospital in Delhi. Other facilities and locations will be added after vetting.

"We spread the word through the Chamber’s social media platforms, database and my own network in New Jersey. We’ve raised over USD 20,000 in less than 24 hours," says Gurpreet Singh Pasricha, Founder and Trustee.

Bureaucrats have launched COVID assistance services. Tech-savvy officers such as Tirunelveli District collector V Vishnu have leveraged technology to put out accurate information on coronavirus facilities. One of these is a one-stop site bringing users up-to-date information on vaccine status, Covid care infrastructure and preventive strategies.

Twitter has decided to walk the line with a dedicated page on pandemic information and strengthened its profile verification process. Facebook collaborates with regional partners for fact-checks before information is disseminated. It has urged users to bring dubious posts to its notice.

Facebook's newsfeed is prioritising information from WHO and other credible sources. WhatsApp has partnered with WHO, UNICEF, and UNDP to introduce the Coronavirus Information Hub. In its search window, type 'WHO health alert' and scroll down to its WhatsApp website. Open, click 'WHO Health Alert' and type 'Hi' in your chat window to go active.

Unprincipled players are being blocked. YouTube has demonetised all COVID-19-related videos to discourage individuals who make commercial videos that give unconfirmed advice. Snapchat has launched the mental health resource 'Here for You' with information on issues such as anxiety, depression and suicide.

'Coronavirus: The Latest' posts up-to-date and factually verified pandemic information. Pinterest left its pretty comfort zone and introduced the 'Today' tab, bringing the latest Covid-19 news from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dance is the new message on social media with Malayali Boney M fans shaking a merry leg. Following the success of the #RasputinChallenge, inspired by the dance video of medical students Janaki Omkumar and Naveen Razak, Kerala's health department is taking its own steps.

To promote its 'Crush the curve' mission, the department has posted an animated video of Covaxin and Covishield vials dancing to 'Ra Ra Rasputin'. State Health Minister KK Shailaja shared the video on her social media pages.

The hashtag #VaccineChallenge is trending on social media. It invites contributions to top up the state's free vaccination drive - not surprisingly, Rs 2.28 crore flowed into the fund in 45 hours. There are other online corona warriors addressing a vital need - hunger.

Many singles in Bengaluru were testing positive. Patients in hospitals were worried about their children at home. The elderly in hospitals, which did not have a pantry, needed nutritious meals; so did the staff. On April 19, Sneha Vachhaney used Instagram to say that she was happy to cook and deliver free home meals to COVID-19 patients in Bengaluru.

The 36-year-old's phone did not stop ringing. There were people who wanted food and there were people - students, mums, bakers, night-shift employees and restaurateurs  who wanted to cook and help out.

In two days, the former product manager, who had launched a similar but smaller initiative in the first phase, had built a web interface to list the contacts of volunteers. It now has 110 'chefs' who send out an average of 400 meals a day to 90 areas in the city, which is under lockdown till May 9.

The meals range from rice and sambhar to pasta, brownies and coconut water. These are mostly given free or for a maximum price of Rs 100 but delivery charges apply. "At least 10 people called me to say that they were feeling better, and I should pass on the meals to those who need them. People have paid for groceries, given their kitchen space and offered tech support. Many brands are helping out with deliveries," she talks of the generosity that has come her way.

Vachhaney has compiled a list of home meal resources in Chennai and Delhi.  Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee has fed more than 4,000 meals to patients quarantined at home during the second COVID wave.

Relax Restaurant in Delhi is disbursing free meals in South Delhi. The Sharanam Foundation has opened a free tiffin service for COVID-19 patients in Ahmedabad. Rahul Nayak in Mumbai is not only preparing free meals but also running errands for elderly patients and the sick. An eager-to-help neighbour, Ajaz Lone, is doing the same in South Delhi.

The Instagram page thing2eatinmumbai advises followers to log in to, for a long list of restaurants providing free food to patients. Tasty-affairs gives free meals to patients (dal, rice, roti, soup and salad). Just call 8169779261.

Chef Aparna Garg in Jaipur was laid off during the lockdown; to avoid moping at home, she cooked and distributed hundreds of meal boxes, and food to street animals, including the monkeys at Galta Temple, during the first COVID-19 phase. She is now back in her kitchen with more ideas.

Kata Food is giving free meals to Guwahati residents in need. However, many services have stopped taking further requests unable to cope with a high volume of demand. Both politicians and people on the streets are endangering the lives of millions without following protocols like wearing masks and keeping social distance.

If the second wave of the pandemic has taught us something at all, it is that the youth of India can rise above politics and save lives and families on their own. For a change, the humanists have prevailed over trolls by harnessing the full power of social media.


K Sai Teja Kukatpally, Hyderabad

He is known as Activist Sai on Twitter, and was particularly concerned about the spike in calls asking for cremation help between April 11-17. "We received about 40 calls which meant the situation had hit a new level of rock bottom," he says, adding, "When we are not handling funeral rites, we provide free food for COVID-positive breadwinners who need help."

People's Democracy Foundation: Mission Oxygen Delhi-NCR

Moved by the unprecedented loss of human life, a bunch of start-up founders based in Delhi-NCR mobilised on April 23 under the banner People's Democracy Foundation: Mission Oxygen. They got in touch with hospitals and doctors around the country and confirmed there was a requirement of more than 3,000 oxygen concentrators in Delhi-NCR and Mumbai alone.

The volunteers pooled their resources to gather the first Rs 50 lakh themselves, followed by the massive crowdfunding campaign called Mission Oxygen. By April 28, they had collected Rs 10+ crore and managed to procure around 1,500 oxygen concentrators from China, Hong Kong and European countries to deliver to hospitals.

Also, the humanitarian effort is starting an oxygen generation plant in Delhi's Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital, due to open on May 5. They are at present accepting donations from across the world.

1947 Partition Archive

This NGO based in Berkeley, California (with presence in Delhi), that works to preserve survivor stories of Partition, has currently diverted all efforts to COVID relief in India. It has temporarily paused all usual programming to amplify efforts by organisations working on procuring oxygen, and will soon begin airing live educational web sessions with medical experts. They will begin this week by hosting experts who can systematically address the many public fears on vaccinations.

Danish Siddiqui and Saddam Qurashi Bhopal

They performed the last rites of patients who died from COVID-19. They have also cremated over 60 Hindu bodies abandoned by their family members who feared contracting the disease.

Vishnu Prasad Ekkal Kasargod, Kerala

Ekkal raised funds for the treatment of a 15-year-old COVID-19 positive girl admitted to Thrissur "'Pachilakkoottam', our social media group, shared details of her condition online, and it also posts the needs of coronavirus patients seeking plasma treatment. Such information is shared through individual social media accounts, too," he says

Vensy Krishna Hyderabad

Krishna frantically looked for a hospital bed for her COVID-positive mother. Her mother survived but the experience persuaded Vensy to use her tech industry expertise to collect all COVID-19 resources available in the city through an app, which took just two hours to create. It had two lakh users in five days and was growing.

A good Samaritan Tiruchi

Tiruchi resident Ajit's father, who had tested positive for COVID needed plasma. Ajit posted appeals on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Sure enough, he found a recently recovered 34-year-old man whose blood type matched with his father's. The patient was saved.

Arpit Verma, Additional District Collector, Shahdol (Madhya Pradesh)

The IAS officer in Shahdol division, Madhya Pradesh, who is also in charge of the Government Medical College, found that his parents, brother and wife tested Covid positive. His mother was in the ICU with only around 40 percent lung capacity. Nevertheless he has remained at his desk, supervising pandemic efforts in the district .

Vaishali Sagar and Jignesh Visakhapatnam

The husband and wife have partnered with NGOs, such as Surge Impact Foundation, Rubaroo and Global Shapers, to start 'Vizag COVID Leads' whose WhatsApp group (8367374231, no calls, only messages) provides vital resources both online and offline, to Visakhapatnam residents. It gives the public information, ranging from Remdesivir availability to vacant hospital beds.

Volunteers across the country have come together as governments and the bureaucracy drown in the sheer complexity of catching up too little, too late

(With inputs from Manju Latha Kalanidhi, Noor Anand Chawla, Barkha Kumari, Sushmitha Ramakrishnan, Sowmya Mani, Vinodh Arulappan, Hemant Kumar Rout and Anuja Susan Varghese)


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