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‘What is Twitter?’: COVID-19 exposes India’s digital divide

Over the past few weeks, Twitter has become India’s default COVID helpline. The social media platform has been inundated with SOS messages from people desperately in need of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and life-saving medication, as India’s health care system has simply buckled under the immensity of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. 

But that is only a small part of India’s unfortunate COVID story. 

“What is Twitter? Can I get my wife hospitalised using that?” Akhil Prasad, who was standing outside the Sir Ganga Ram hospital in Delhi on Friday said when asked about whether he had sought help on Twitter. He had been running from pillar to post to get his wife admitted to a hospital after she started showing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Prasad has never heard of Twitter. When informed that many people have been getting help on the platform for life-saving elements like hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, he promptly took out his phone—a basic feature phone—and earnestly asked, “will it work on this?”

“I hope my wife lives,” Prasad said upon learning the answer to his question. “For people like us, it’s a loss no matter where you go. I can’t find a hospital bed for my wife and this Twitter is beyond my understanding and reach,” he said.  

The coronavirus pandemic’s second coming has ravaged India. The numbers have been staggering and gut-wrenching in equal measure. On April 25, the country recorded more than 3.5 lakh COVID-19 cases—marking five consecutive days of more than 3 lakh reported positive cases. And there are doubts that these figures reflect the full extent of the situation. 

Hospital beds and oxygen supply have been hard to come by for hundreds and thousands of people. The death toll reaches dizzying heights every passing day. 

And because the healthcare system has simply crumbled owing to the sheer numbers, Twitter has been used extensively by several people to seek help and send out SOS messages. Even some of the biggest hospitals in the country like Max and Fortis have used it to send SOS messages about running out of oxygen. 

But not everyone in the country may find a voice on Twitter. 

Twitter is among India’s most popular social media platforms with an estimated user base of 17.5 million. But in absolute terms, it means that only a little over 1% of India’s population use the platform. Prasad belongs to the remaining 99%. 

Estimates also suggest that less than half of India’s population has access to the internet. Prasad is not one of them. 

Twitter

“Elderly people who may not know their way around a smartphone, people who do not have access to a smartphone or the internet and even people dealing with a sick family member who may not have the time to check social media, are at a severe risk of being left out,” Anas Tanwir, a lawyer and founder of the Indian Civil Liberties Union or ICLU, told Entrackr

Calling up helplines set up by central and state governments is the only available option for people like Prasad who don’t own a smartphone and have no idea of what Twitter is. 

“The  COVID helplines have been inundated with calls left right and centre. I’m sure it’s impossible for people handling the helplines to successfully help every single person who’s calling. We are really doing all we can, but you know how the situation is. Sometimes some people also call to enquire about things for which they can get information from elsewhere. So the load on the helplines is immense,” an official from Delhi’s health department told Entrackr on condition of anonymity. 

Our queries to the Delhi government on the type of load its COVID-helplines have faced over the past weeks remained unanswered until publishing. 

“It’s a fight against time and space,” a doctor working in a private hospital in Delhi told Entrackr requesting anonymity. 

“It’s like a hundred people fighting for one bed, or maybe the ratio is even worse than that. So if you get a lead for a bed on Twitter or via a helpline, the odds are always going to be stacked against you. By the time you reach the hospital, that bed may have already gone. The system has collapsed,” this doctor said.

“It’s probably the worst time to be poor or marginalised,” he added.

Even then, for several people, Twitter has become their best bet at saving someone they love. 

Tanwir’s organisation, the ICLU, involves a network of lawyers, researchers and students who advocate for civil liberties, but the challenge of the pandemic has forced it to amplify the voices of people in need of help on Twitter. 

“This is not even our mandate, and yet here we are,” Tanwir said. 

On Twitter, the fight against the pandemic has largely been a citizen-led one. People have been tweeting on behalf of those in need, sharing links of databases containing contacts of people for oxygen cylinders and Remdesivir, and putting together information about charities that offer essential services to people. 

“I’m getting more than 7,000 queries everyday and even though I try to help everyone, unfortunately, I can only help around 1,800-2,000 people,” Lakshmi Mittal, co-founder of a software development company and someone who has been amplifying voices on Twitter, told Entrackr

“For those I can’t provide help, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. 

“About a month back, I started seeing these tweets, YouTube videos, etc. popping up online with requests regarding medical help for oxygen, plasma or Remdesivir,” Aanchal Agrawal, who is a digital content creator and among the many people who have been sharing crucial information about availability of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders among other things on Twitter, told Entrackr.

“The situation out there is heart-breaking,” said Sanjyot Keer, a chef and content creator who has been amplifying posts of those seeking help on various social media platforms. 

“We have been sharing a lot of requests on all platforms via Instagram, FB stories and Twitter. As soon as people start watching these stories, many times people send in leads to us rather contact the person in need,” Keer said.

Acknowledging that people from all across the country were using Twitter to find the latest information and access to COVID-19 related resources, Twitter curated a list of posts and updates shared by verified handles. 

In a series of tweets, the company also educated how users could use Twitter’s advanced search features to access information that was more relevant to them. 

However, with such a huge overload of information on the platform, it has also become equally important for those amplifying that information to first verify it. 

“It is very important to be able to find and share the right information because if false information is put out there, it disturbs both the caller and the receiver. And in doing so, in the end you just feel helpless and guilty,” Agrawal said. 

The ICLU is running a group on Telegram where volunteers share verified contact information of people who can help in arranging hospital beds, oxygen cylinders among others, before sharing that information on Twitter. 

Apart from dealing with misinformation, there are other obvious problems when a country’s plans to fight a ravaging pandemic involves its citizens scrambling for information on a social media platform — often with very tangible costs. 

“A couple days back, a patient was supposed to get a bed around 11:00 pm but we found out at 10:30 pm that he passed away,” Agrawal said.

Technology and the will to help are combining to bring relief and some hope to those who can or are able to share their plea on any platform. That though is leaving behind a huge number of those who find themselves on the wrong side of this digital divide. 

Perhaps the good old voice helplines still remain the best way to get to people the help they need as in this case where technology is able to help only those who have access. 

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