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Twitter India: Messiah of Covid-19

Newspaper: Avenue Mail

Date: 1st May 2021

“Request Plasma in Delhi. Blood Group O+, required at a blood bank in Lucknow”. “Hospital bed needed for a 75-year-old relative in Karol Bagh, Delhi..oxygen level plummeting. Any leads please help. Please amplify”. “Required Remdesivir vials in Pune, please help”. “Urgent ventilator required in Surat. Please help”. “Need an ICU bed in Kanpur for my father” These are some of the samples of the thousands of frantic messages that have flooded the microblogging site Twitter in India over the past four weeks as India became a global hotspot of the second wave of the Covid-19 explosion. When Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Boz Stone, and Evan Williams launched Twitter in July 2006, they would not have envisioned that their platform will play a major role in amplifying the voice of distraught Indians and saving thousands of lives in the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 in India.

The world watched in horror as the Covid-19 pandemic raised its ugly head and unleased a catastrophe onto India for a second year. The immobilized government, the system, and the creaking medical infrastructure in India stood torn apart by the “Covid Tsunami” in India in April 2021. As the patients rose, the netizens flocked to Twitter to air their issues and problems in finding basic facilities for themselves, their loved ones, or even their friends and neighbors.

It is well documented when actor Sonu Sood remodeled himself into a messiah for the migrant laborers in the first wave of the Covid pandemic in 2020 by skilfully using Twitter as the platform to connect and provide help for all those who wanted to return home due to the abrupt four-hour lockdown announced by the government in March 2020. Nobody expected a second wave of the pandemic and predicted the end of the virus with the turn of the new year into 2021. Vaccines from around the world had started to make inroads and there was hope and excitement to see off the virus. Things started to worsen in India in the first week of April this year as fresh Covid cases started to multiply by the day. Twitter erupted into cries for help and turned the platform into a battlefield to secure hospital beds, oxygen, Remdesivir vials, ventilators, plasma, and even help for cremation grounds for the dead.

 

Earlier it was people from Mumbai city who were asking for help, then Delhi joined in as cases exploded in the city and within a short span of a week, the entire country was making desperate attempts on Twitter to anyone who could help. Heart-breaking videos and posts flooded Twitter of cremations, dead bodies, and people lying on the pavements and areas outside the hospital waiting for admission to treatment centers.

Up to recently, Twitter was being tagged as the platform where hate, propaganda, bigotry, half-truths, alternate facts, lies, and misinformation thrived promoting several netizens and civil society to raise their concern on the site. Today the same platform had become the beacon of hope and belief that help asked on the microblogging site, will be the help given by any good Samaritan who was ready to help.

The first such good Samaritan was Srinivas BV (@srinivasiyc), National President of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) under the aegis of the Congress party who metamorphosed himself as a warrior on Twitter and instinctively became a nerve center of the fight against the second wave of the Covid -19 pandemic on the site. He used the hashtag #SOSIYC he helped hundreds of desperate Indians via Twitter to arrange for a bed, a vial, or a cylinder in these trying times where the systems completely failed to respond. His team monitored calls for help on social media to direct help to the affected people.

Another Covid warrior was MLA of Timarpur, Chief Whip of Delhi assembly, Dilip Pandey (@dilipkpandey), who became one of the pillars which have held the crumbling edifice of humanity in these difficult times by offering help to each one knocked on his handle to ask for help. Thus, began a trend of more and more prominent people who started to direct people when they were being asked for help. Timelines of celebrities or anyone who showed even a bleak sign of help were flooded with requests as the Indian official covid response system failed miserably. From being a messaging app Twitter became the SOS center of the Covid-19 pandemic. People who could not help directly shared the Twitter handles of other people who were providing help with Covid facilities on their Whatsapp groups. Information was being spread with lightning speed with each SOS being liked, retweeted, or commented upon within minutes.

Doctors took to Twitter and pitched in “Anyone who can’t afford Covid consults, pl DM with phone number. Am dedicating a few hours morning and late evening to Covid home management. Colleagues (anywhere in India) experienced in Covid care, pl message if u r willing to take calls n help patients n their families” wrote Dr. Parul M Sharma from Gurgaon on Twitter.

Twitter India utilized its handle to aid the Covid efforts. It posted “All across the country, people are using Twitter to find the latest information and access to resources right now. As this people’s movement unfolds, we wanted to remind you of some of the features that could help you find what you’re looking for faster #Covid19IndiaHelp”, even reaching out in Hindi vernacular script to reach a wider audience. Arvinder Gujral, Managing Director, Twitter South East Asia shared a “Curated lists of doctors, reporters, health experts, and fact-checkers #COVIDIndiaHelp”, while the Managing Director of Twitter India, Manish Maheswari pitched in with an article on “Who didn't know each other till a few weeks ago, are working together to provide information on resources to those asking for help on Twitter.” Even other employees pitched in, Keya Madhvani Singh from the Twitter communications team shared resource links and apps for anyone looking for beds or oxygen.

When the oxygen shortage hit the country, hospitals posted their cries for help on Twitter with scary messages like “only two hours of oxygen left” or “no beds or oxygen available at the hospital, please check before coming to the hospital”. The information dissemination was chaotic yet there was a method to the madness. Social activists raised an alarm when infection rates, covid cases, and deaths were being underreported via Twitter.

As India broke one world record to the next in fresh Covid cases, the Government on the other end, used Twitter to provide fresh information on oxygen availability, ICU beds, ventilators, supply chain blockages, and vaccine availability. Even the vaccine manufacturers, used the Twitter platform to announce their vaccine pricing for the state governments and private hospitals. Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the Serum Institute of India, raised eyebrows when he tweeted to US President Joe Biden to ask for help for raw materials for vaccine production on Twitter which was graciously approved by the US President days later, news which again broke on Twitter first.

As the devastation in India continues, governments across the world used Twitter to announce their aid and support for India’s fight against Covid -19.  Germany announced its help with masks, ventilators and Remdesivir while the United Kingdom provided for oxygen concentrators and vital medical supplies. Canada announced PPE kits and ventilators to be rushed to India on an emergency basis.

Bollywood offered help with celebrities like Sonu Sood, Alia Bhatt, and Taapsee Pannu offering help by amplifying SOS calls through their huge fan following on Twitter. From providing food to directing people and getting vital information, Twitter has transformed into a messiah of the people in need. Producer Boney Kapoor postponed the first look of the most anticipated Tamil film of the year Valimai when he announced on Twitter that keeping in mind the devastation and death around, the film’s first look was being put off to a later date, signaling a time of silence and respect for all affected by the pandemic.

Since its inception, Twitter has been a site where the world breaks its news, where Presidents, Prime Ministers, and governments make critical announcements that shape our planet. The devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our systems and medical infrastructure and has given a whole new meaning to the interaction tweeple do with strangers on social media.  Earlier a stranger on Twitter could be a troll or a follower, but today, in the era of Covid, any random unknown person could be your savior and save you or your loved one’s life. The platform has elevated itself as a messiah in these desperate times.

With India is not showing any signs of abating in its infection rate, people continue to flock to Twitter to find a panacea to fight the tragedy of Covid through Twitter.