Amid the COVID-19 Surge, Indians Are Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

NEW DELHI — In recent days, Prajwal Bhat, a correspondent for the digital news site The News Minute, has been chasing stories about rising COVID-19 cases in the south Indian city of Bengaluru as part of a nationwide surge of the coronavirus. Bhat has also been busy responding to distress messages on behalf of infected patients who are seeking hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medicines.

“When the situation is like this, any journalist would take out time to help,” Bhat says. He sees this as an extension of his job, which his editor tells him is “connected to public service,” Bhat says.

As India‘s health care and civic infrastructure totters under a new wave of COVID-19 infections, journalists such as Bhat are going beyond their role as chroniclers of unfolding events. To be sure, journalists aren’t alone in offering help. Students and people across various industries in India have come forth to tweet calls for help and to volunteer help. They include politicians from both the opposition and from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Bollywood actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, nonprofit workers, activists and regular citizens, many of whom are saying they are doing what the government should have already done.

India has been recording more than 300,000 new infections daily over the last week, breaking global records for new cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. On Wednesday, the country recorded another grim milestone: more than 3,200 people died on that day, taking the country’s overall death toll to more than 200,000.

The surge in infections in India represents a threat to the world, a leading global health expert said on Thursday. As the virus spreads across the country, the chances of it mutating into a form that can resist current vaccines grows, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told CNN.

Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said at a news conference this week that India is better prepared this year to beat COVID-19 than in 2020. However, news reports show that across Indian cities, from the capital New Delhi to Surat to Nagpur and Patna, basic health care services are lacking. Vital medical supplies from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and France began arriving in India this week.

Hospitals have run out of oxygen, so patients are frequently asked to arrange their own supply. Other hospitals are turning away patients because they don’t have beds available. Some medicines and injections needed to help serious patients are not available. Depending on the city, government helplines are either overwhelmed or not responding at all.

Among those who have access to the internet, hundreds of desperate relatives and friends of patients have turned to social media and journalists to seek help. Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of many journalists in print, television and digital media are full of pleas, retweets and offers to help.

[MORE: Countries Seen to Have the Best Public Health Care Systems]

Journalists are playing a prominent role by virtue of their large social media presence and network. “Every reporter I know right now alongside filing their own stories and OBs (obituaries), meeting deadlines is also attending to COVID SOS messages just to be able to help that someone,” wrote Shonakshi Chakravarty, a journalist with TV channel NDTV.

At times, journalists are tapping both personal and professional connections to seek assistance. “Unless I use my connections in bureaucracy, in police, or somebody I know, you just can’t do it,” says Aditya Raj Kaul, a contributing editor for the CNN-News18 TV news channel.

On April 23, Kaul, who has nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, tweeted that he would amplify requests from people facing a COVID-19 emergency, and connect them to volunteer and doctor groups. Kaul says he has since been flooded with messages.

Kaul wrote in a recent tweet about a 60-year-old male in Gaya urgently needing oxygen and a bed, adding the phone number of an attendant. One of Kaul’s Twitter followers tagged Gaya’s inspector general of police on the tweet, who in turn later responded to say that a bed would be arranged. “Details conveyed to (the) patient’s family who were in tears,” Kaul wrote while thanking the police official.

Kaul, who typically writes about national security and foreign policy, says journalists should not be coordinating emergency health care. But their expanded role has happened because there is no central source of information or emergency response system which the public can turn to.

“No control rooms to call, nobody accountable to reach. It’s a governance rout,” tweeted Shekhar Gupta, a veteran journalist and founder of the online news site The Print.

[MORE: India Faces a Health Crisis as COVID-19 Cases Soar]

Dozens of journalists have also succumbed to COVID-19 in April. One of the most gripping stories was of Lucknow-based journalist Vinay Srivastava who live-tweeted his death. Srivastava kept asking for help on social media, tweeting pictures of his dipping oxygen level, but by the time anyone responded, he had died, according to a report.

In the past few days, local governments and volunteers have created applications, links, directories and online open source sheets where people can find information on supplies such as beds and oxygen tanks. So many such online links have been created that the public is now sorting through for reliable ones. “This is where journalists and people who are compiling verified sources come in,” Bhat says. He says he typically makes a call to check the source of information before sharing any list.

Journalist Riddhi Dastidar started an online document titled Mutual Aid that lists fundraising needs of people and organizations. “Began the #mutualaid doc bc i stopped being able to sleep in my own room out of guilt. Bc we lost a patient in Lucknow from lack of oxygen,” she wrote in a tweet on April 24.

Unlike previous disasters such as cyclones or floods, where efforts were focused on bringing money or other relief to the disaster-struck area, responding to the coronavirus pandemic across India is more personalized.

Emergency responses have been about using influence to locate that one oxygen cylinder or hospital bed for the most needy at a time when so many in the country are sick and needing help, says Sreshth Shah, a 28-year-old correspondent for the sports website ESPNcricinfo. Shah, his mother and other volunteers have been helping individuals primarily in his Kolkata neighborhood of Salt Lake for more than two weeks. Many requests came in after he offered help on Twitter on April 23.

Shah says he looks at the patient’s medical report provided by their attendants to determine how critical it is. If the patient has low oxygen levels, for instance, Shah says they call up known oxygen suppliers to persuade them to sell their cylinders to the more needy patient instead of someone who may offer more money.

Sometimes, Shah says they finalize a deal on the phone but within minutes, the supplier sells it to someone else. “It’s definitely a feeling of helplessness, because you can’t fulfill everyone’s request,” says Shah.

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