The collapse of the health care system during the latest Covid-19 wave has prompted desperate Indians to seek help on social media.
As adults grapple with medical shortages, India’s wired youth are doing their part to help – and are taught about resilience, initiative and the constructive power of the Internet.
Mahi Saraf was under lockdown at home during India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19 when she saw the plea for help on her high school WhatsApp group. A teacher at her school in the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon was suffering from Covid-19 and needed plasma because the blood banks in the Indian capital were running out.
After a gripping, unsuccessful hunt, the patient’s haunted family activated informal Samaritan networks in a desperate effort to secure the plasma.
The 16-year-old high school student and her classmates immediately got to work. Within minutes, the kids were combing through shared spreadsheets, finding contacts, verified and pursued leads, and updating Google docs in real time until a donor was found.
The teacher’s family had tried and couldn’t find a donor. When the kids got involved, it took us 30 minutes to find one, ”Saraf explains in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.“ We kids all have social media accounts. The adults are so stressed, they are trying to get the money for the treatment, they have so many responsibilities, we have to get involved. It’s easier when we have to do one task, we just get to it. ”
The collapse of the Indian healthcare system during what turns out to be the worst Covid-19 wave in the world has plunged the country into a tragedy of unprecedented magnitude, with citizens having to take care of themselves and each other in the absence of state services.
On Friday, India registered a new record of 414,188 confirmed daily cases, bringing the total number to 21.4 million. The Department of Health reported 3,915 additional deaths, bringing the total to 234,083. Experts believe that both numbers are under-graded.
Despite the recent rush of foreign aid, the Covid-19 curve is showing no signs of flattening, with virus variants spreading – as feared – from the hard-hit Indian capital to villages in neighboring states, including the most populous Uttar Pradesh.
With hospitals overflowing, oxygen and other medical supplies running low, a central government focused on winning elections and international image management, the battle to make it next day has gone online.
>> Read more: India tightens Twitter grip as Covid-19 rises
Social media, once struck down in a country with a chronic fake news problem, has grown into a massive humanitarian platform in the world’s second most populous country, with desperate people posting about hospitalization, IC beds, oxygen cylinders or concentrators, plasma donors and medicines.
Their calls are answered by millions of online volunteers who repost and try to help as best they can. The gap between supply and demand in a country largely dependent on private healthcare has led to the emergence of touts and profiteers, increasing the need – at a pace of life and death – for cyber verification and authentication.
Enter the youth of India. Faced with the sheer desperation of the adults, young people – with the intuitive online skills that their parents’ generation sometimes lack – play in. They also receive lessons in resilience, self-confidence and initiative in a difficult world.
The massive fight against untimely death has also been a big step, requiring many affluent Indian teens – who under normal circumstances would be focused on admission to the best Indian and international universities – had to activate resources they did not know they owned.
In some urban elite circles that had joined global debates about “prosperity” and its effects on over-equipped children before the crisis, the pandemic is changing parenting dynamics.
‘Young people’ come together online
While the role of online Samaritans for youth has been noted in Indian and diaspora circles, no data has yet been collected on the phenomenon as the country focuses on a crisis that has hit millions.
But the predominance of social media is well documented in a country with the second largest smartphone penetration in the world after China, according to Newzoo’s Global Mobile Market Report 2019. In 2020, India had more than 560 million internet users and 400 million social media users. , with the average time spent on social media being around 2.4 hours, a figure rising to 27 hours per week for adolescents.
Social media consumption was up 75 percent during India’s freeze last year, according to the 2020 Statista figures, and those numbers are likely to remain high this year as states enforce local restrictive measures.
Experts such as Rakshit Tandon, a leading Indian cybersecurity expert, have observed the increasing number of young people coming to the rescue of families seeking help on social media.
“We have seen children, especially young schoolchildren, form groups, form websites, verify information and follow directions during this crisis,” Tandon said in a telephone interview with Jowharfrom New Delhi.
“These young people got together – especially youth influencers – and have made their voices heard through their platforms, verified information and tried to share the right resources. It is a concept that is repeated in one state after another, and it is a very positive sign emerging from this crisis. ”
‘Young people’ lead the fight against fraudsters
For young people volunteering in India’s massive cyber-SOS service Covid-19, the crisis has opened new avenues to understand the constructive power of connectivity for a generation that has often knowingly or unknowingly misused it.
“Social media has certainly become an integral part – if you can’t get out of the house, that’s the only way you can help,” Saraf said. “Pre-Covid everyone hated WhatsApp groups, but now it has become very useful.”
Saraf was given a crash course on the destructive power of social media last year, when a teenage boy from her school jumped out of his 11th-floor apartment, prompting a police investigation into whether the boy committed suicide after a girl accused him of sexual abuse. in an Instagram post.
Amid national media coverage of the case, school authorities had Tandon run an online safety workshop for the kids, raising Saraf’s awareness of the dangers of irresponsible behavior on social media. But as a student of an elite school, Saraf knows she belongs to a privileged minority trained in responsible cyber practices.
Tandon, who has conducted online security workshops for more than 3.6 million students, has made it his mission to raise this awareness across the country. “Nobody taught them what the internet can do in a positive sense. So if someone gets mad at a friend, they just create a fake account and start abusing their friends, ”he said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, children are still vulnerable to many cyber issues, but I am pleased that their attention is now turning to the constructive power of the Internet.”
The veteran cybercrime expert, who also works with law enforcement agencies in India and other Asian countries, said he welcomes the initiative shown by adolescents during the second wave. “I am happy to see self-learning learning among young influencers.
We are there as facilitators, but the young people have tackled this themselves ”, says Tandon. “This crisis has led many fraudsters online to hunt desperate people looking for oxygen and hospital beds. It is a very good message to the fraudsters that the young people are leading the fight against them. ”
The children grow up
Saraf’s mother, Suruchi Ailawadi, a businesswoman in the organic food industry, is no stranger to her daughter who is leading the way – chastising her parents’ generation for their lack of social awareness.
Since the pandemic started last year, Saraf has started numerous projects to help disadvantaged people. Her first Covid initiative was launched early last year when she noticed that the maids in her housing complex were wrapping cloths around their mouths because they didn’t have face masks.
Saraf joined her father’s contacts and raised money to buy masks for the maids, which were purchased, ordered and delivered to various apartment blocks.
Weeks later, the migrant labor crisis hit India. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the world’s toughest nationwide lockdown with just four hours’ notice and no emergency preparedness, millions of day laborers in Indian cities were struggling with poverty.
Saraf then started a food distribution service. When distribution began to become unmanageable with the crush of desperate recipients, the teen got help from her parents to contact the local district commissioner’s office to dispatch a few officers through the process.
Organizing a food distribution in a settlement in Gurgaon, near New Delhi on June 29, 2020. © Handout
Saraf then realized that providing work to migrant workers who lost their jobs during the lockdown was more effective than handing out food. So she helped set up an initiative to teach unemployed day workers how to make masks, which were sold and the proceeds divided among the workers.
However, the second Covid-19 wave grounded the teenager at home as the virus took many young lives. She has since moved her initiatives online.
“My daughter is very sensitive,” Ailawadi said with a smile, revealing palpable pride. “She thinks the country needs so much help, she thinks she should do something about it and she always asks us: why didn’t you do something about it? Before she started this, we weren’t the kind of people who did much for society, although there were problems like poverty and hunger everywhere. She is so conscientious that we feel guilty. ”
The second wave has plunged Saraf into a whirlwind of online volunteering, and the teen admits she has had little time to come to terms with the events of the past 12 months, including the loss of her beloved grandmother to Covid in October.
‘I don’t think I’ve processed what I’ve done. It feels very little that verifying leads and reaching out to people is the least you can do. But I’m going through fear. It’s very difficult when your friends lose their parents, when people get sick… you feel so helpless, you don’t know what to do, ”she explained.
Looking back over the past year, Saraf acknowledges that she has learned a number of valuable life lessons. “We did application-oriented learning, not physics and chemistry and math,” said the supernaturally adult teenager.
“We have learned how to help our families, how to cope with loss, how to do community service to help our friends and others. We kids have also learned that social media has both positive and negative sides, and we need to be more mature to use it. The children are now growing up and this will certainly help us in the future. “