After spending hours fruitlessly calling government helplines in a search for a hospital bed for a critically ill COVID-19 patient, Indian lawyer Jeevika Shiv posted an SOS request on Twitter.
"Serious #covid19 patient in #Delhi with oxygen level 62 needs an immediate hospital bed," Shiv, part of a 350-member COVID-19 volunteer Medical Support Group, said on Twitter late last week. Help came quickly. The patient found a bed and was soon showing signs of recovery.
"Finally, it helped online that worked as people responded with information," Shiv said. India is reporting more than 250,000 new COVID-19 cases a day in its worst phase of the pandemic. Hospitals are turning away patients and supplies of oxygen and medication are running short.
In response, people are bypassing the conventional lines of communication and turning to Twitter to crowdsource help for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, and other requirements. People in need and those with information or resources share telephone numbers of volunteers, vendors who have oxygen cylinders or drugs, and details of which medical facility can take patients using hashtags like #COVIDSOS.
Some users have offered to help with home-cooked meals for COVID patients quarantining at home and to meet a host of other needs like arranging to feed pets. "Twitter is having to do what the government helpline numbers should be doing," wrote Twitter user Karanbir Singh.
"We are on our own folks." Twitter is not as widely used in India as Facebook or WhatsApp but it is proving a more valuable tool to get pleas for help out in the coronavirus crisis, largely because of its "re-tweet" function that can quickly amplify a message through users' networks of contacts.
A Google spreadsheet was drawn up by a volunteer group that collates information on hospital beds, oxygen supplies, blood plasma and ambulance helplines in various states is being rapidly shared on Twitter and runs into dozens of pages. Bengaluru-based software developer Umang Galaiya, 25, has created a website that allows users to select the name of the city and the requirement – be it oxygen or the antiviral drug remdesivir – and then directs them to results on Twitter using its advance search feature.
His website has received more than 110,000 hits. "Every other tweet on my feed has been about COVID," Galaxy said.
"I'm glad people are finding this helpful." But for some, help comes too late.
On Monday, journalist Sweta Dash posted a plea for help on Twitter to find a bed with a ventilator for a pregnant woman in New Delhi. Her message spread quickly through more than 100 retweets and a Delhi government official soon suggested a hospital. But a few hours later, Dash posted another message.
"The patient passed away".