NEW DELHI – Razni Gil woke up with a mild fever in mid-April, the first warning that he had Covid-19. Within days, she was out of breath and almost unconscious in hospital.
Desperate to arrange plasma treatment for Mrs. Gil, a gynecologist in the city of Noida, her family called doctors, friends, anyone they thought could help. Her sister then posted an application on Facebook: “I’m looking for a plasma donor for my sister, who is hospitalized in Noida. It is B positive and is 43. “
The message, quickly amplified on Twitter, flashed on the phone of Srinivas BV, an opposition politician in nearby Delhi who was providing plasma for a student at the time. He replaced a volunteer donor who rushed to Mrs. Gil̵
“The administration and the systems have collapsed,” Mr Srinivas said. “I’ve never seen so many people die at once.”
“My job and the work of my team may be a drop in the ocean – but still a drop,” he said.
As India’s healthcare system is shattered by Covid’s unprecedented influx into India, which brings about 400,000 new cases and thousands of deaths every day, desperate relatives and friends of the infected have resorted to sending SOS messages on social media. And many of these calls are answered.
Some people need medical oxygen, which is almost impossible to find in the capital Delhi. Others are looking for drugs that are available at high prices on the black market, or ventilators that are extremely rare.
The requests reach technically intelligent engineers, lawyers, NGO workers, politicians, doctors and even drivers here and there who have mobilized online to help the sick, some hundreds of miles away. Together, they have formed mass networks that enter where state and national governments have failed.
This is a role that Mr Srinivas, 38, has played before during the crisis.
As president of the Youth League of the opposition party of the Indian National Congress, he provides support after natural disasters, including earthquakes and floods. He worked to get textbooks for disadvantaged children and medicines for people who could not afford it.
Early last year, when the pandemic first struck and India was locked, Mr Srinivas galvanized young volunteers across the country who were distributing food to stranded migrants, along with more than 10 million masks. He now leads a team of 1,000 people, including 100 in Delhi, the center of the current outbreak.
“I grew up on the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi,” said Mr Srinivas, who aspires to be a cricketer before entering politics. “I can’t believe I’m here today and I’m trying to help so many people.”
The cry for help on Twitter and Facebook began to spread “like wildfire” in early April, Mr Srinivas said. He created the hashtag #SOSIYC so that people can connect with his organization, the Indian Youth Congress.
His team advertised online for plasma donors and 5,000 registered. It also attracts psychologists to advise donors on the four-hour procedure.
Loose online help networks in India rely on tools and techniques commonly used in marketing and other forms of social media messaging. Families tag people with great followers or specialized skills who could increase their messages, while volunteer organizers use keywords to filter the flow of requests.
Abhishek Murarka, who works in finance in Mumbai, decided he needed to do more than retweet. He began searching the terms “verified,” “verified,” and “available” on Twitter to track specific potential customers for Covid’s deliveries. He has since posted an 84-second video explaining his techniques so others can use them.
Hundreds of miles away, Praveen Mishra, 20, who runs a startup in the southern city of Bangalore, studies Mr. Murarka’s video and applies his own filters to search for beds, oxygen and medicine. He was able to take a specific medicine from a patient in Delhi after confirming that it was available in Hyderabad.
“At first I felt very scared that there were too many cases and that I would not be able to help at all,” Mr Mishra said. “Now I call 20 potential customers a day and check their needs.”
Some people take advantage of resources around the world. Nickhill Joyce, chief technology officer at Bangalore, and his own team inspected charities that supplied oxygen, food and sanitary napkins. He has split his list into just over a dozen organizations, some of which can accept international donations.
His team then asked several companies in India to link to the list on their apps or websites. And he started sending emails to managers, investors and best-selling authors in the United States asking them to give.
“The most beautiful part of social media is that you trust strangers,” said Mr. Joyce.
This, of course, is not always a good idea. Doubtful bills offer crappy or overly priced goods for desperate people, and possible supplies can quickly evaporate. And trolls will always arouse the hatred of the vulnerable.
But because India is in crisis and travel is not a safe option, social media is the only way for some people to find help.
Aditya Jain, who is in Delhi, recently posted an application that went viral on Twitter. He felt helpless as his elderly aunt and uncle, about 130 miles away in Agra, struggled during the stern lock there.
His aunt suffers from a spinal disease, and his uncle, a diabetic, needs weekly dialysis. They could not go out, they ate only one meal a day. They could not take care of themselves and sometimes could not get to the bathroom.
Through LinkedIn, he found an organization that serves the elderly. He filled out a form, providing their names, location and other information. The next morning, volunteers appeared on their doorstep with breakfast and diapers for adults.
“Social media is a godsend for us,” said an emotional Mr. Jane, who lost one of his other relatives to Kovid.
Mr Srinivas said he receives at least 10,000 Twitter messages each day and tracks them all. For every 100 requests, he said, he can usually help 30 to 40 people, given the shortage.
Even foreign diplomats in Delhi turned to his organization for help. On Sunday, the New Zealand High Commission marked the Indian Youth Congress on Twitter in a call for oxygen cylinders. As the group is part of the political opposition, this has attracted a great deal of attention, given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong criticism of the pandemic. (The Commission stated that its complaint was “misinterpreted, which we regret”.)
Mr Srinivas’ volunteers used direct messages to collect data on people in need and then classify them by risk profile. They work with people on earth to organize hospital beds and plasma donations for the most serious cases. Others contact doctors who can provide distance counseling.
Often the shortcomings of the system are too great to be overcome.
Mahua Ray Chaudhuri frantically marked Mr. Srinivas to seek oxygen for his ailing father. His team found some, but that wasn’t enough: there were no intensive care beds.
“At least I could take oxygen from him and he died breathing,” Ms. Chaudhuri said over the phone and broke down. “This help from strangers on Twitter was like a balm for our troubled minds and souls.”
But Mr Srinivas’ team was able to find plasma for Mrs. Gil, a gynecologist, just in time. She is now recovering in a hospital on the outskirts of Delhi.
“I feel suffocated by emotions,” she said. “Coming out of such a fatal time, I realize that I have been selflessly supported by complete strangers.”
She recently called Mr Srinivas to thank him. “Although I never met her, it was a humiliating experience when I heard her voice,” he said. “I’m so relieved he did it.”