It was only after many false starts that 23-year-old Isha Bansal finally found suppliers for an oxygen cylinder kit and antiviral injections for her 31-year-old cousin, who is in the hospital with covid.
Bansal lives with 14 other family members in Delhi, and two weeks ago she started experiencing covid symptoms. Even as she self-isolated, all her family members soon started showing signs of infection. As the situation worsened, she knew she had to start looking for oxygen cylinders and other resources, but she didn’t know where to turn. Everything she found on Google or through WhatsApp was a wrong number, or the supplies were out of stock.
Bansal’s friends stepped in. They scoured Twitter and Instagram, found suppliers, and started calling one after the other. After about a hundred calls, one lead materialized, and Bansal—now recovering from covid—went and picked up the oxygen kit. She paid 12 times the original price. After that, she paid almost $1,200 for antiviral drugs on the black market.
“It’s inhuman that people are making a business out of it,” she says.
She also said that having a team of family and friends searching was essential: “If I had been calling them alone, I would have been drained out, but since my friends were helping out, one of the numbers worked. Otherwise, it’s very time consuming and disheartening.”
The limits of crowdsourcing
As volunteers circulate information on social media, others have helped aggregate it. Umang Galaiya, a 25-year-old software engineer, built the website covid19-twitter.in, which started out as a place where people could look for city-specific resources and began adding keywords over time: beds, oxygen, remdesivir, FabiFlu. Over 200,000 people have visited this website in less than a week.
Twitter, for its part, is creating a list of resources shared by verified users.
But online crowdsourcing isn’t helping everyone who needs it. India has a little over 2 million Twitter users and around 28 million Instagram users, which is a fraction of the nearly 700 million internet users in the country—and that itself is only around half of the population of 1.36 billion. There are lots of people who don’t know what Twitter is, or how to use it. As covid overwhelms rural parts of the country—nearly half of one village in south India tested positive, according to reports—people are coming up with different ways to overcome the digital divide. Padmini Ray Murray, founder of the tech design company Design Beku, says, “While websites such as Instagram and Twitter have helped create a network that has allowed for many people to find information and share, they are exclusionary and they are elite, leaving the majority of India’s population to fend for themselves.”
Murray woke up one morning last week and decided to design a website, oxygenblr.in, for speakers of both English and the local language, Kannada, in Bangalore. The site contains phone numbers for ambulances and information on oxygen and bed availability, home care, blood donation, and more. She says, “I felt there was a need to rescue all this content from these [social media] platforms and then put it in a static space that people could access.”
A role for government
As small-scale digital efforts take off, bigger collaborations are starting to emerge: aid is on the way from India’s tech sector, as investors and startups charter flights for oxygen cylinders and concentrators. Many have also come together to raise around $10 million for oxygen, vaccines, and home care, while others are running campaigns to raise funds in cryptocurrency.
But as citizens work to find their own solutions, experts have criticized the government’s approach. For example, they point to how Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on television as cases spiraled out of control and, instead of commenting on the true scope of the crisis, simply asked Indians to be more careful. Modi’s political party has also said on Twitter that free vaccines in one state would be contingent on an electoral win.
This comes after the government allowed massive public gatherings and ordered just a fraction of the vaccines needed to meet inoculation targets—even though India is one of the largest vaccine producers in the world. In February the country gave away over 3 million vaccine doses to its neighbor countries Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives but was later criticized for not prioritizing its own citizens.