'Please help!': Covid-19 tragedy spills onto social media in India

A suspected Covid-19 patient waits in an autorickshaw at a Covid-19 centre in Mumbai, on April 21, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - These days, social media posts in India are no longer about cheeky photos, funny memes or political jokes. Instead, frantic calls to save lives are flooding Twitter and Instagram as the latest wave of coronavirus cases and deaths overwhelm the nation's hospitals and crematoriums.

On Bharath Pottekkat's Instagram feed, one message screams "Mumbai please help! Lungs damaged due to pneumonia infection. In need of ICU bed."

Another reads "Plasma urgently required for treatment of Covid patient in Max Hospital, Delhi."

More follow: "Urgently needed Tocilizumab injection. Please DM if you know of stock in and around Mumbai."

New appeals land with every refresh.

"My brain can't handle the social media overload," said Pottekkat, a 20-year-old Delhi law student.

"I can't process what I'm reading. I feel numb."

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Telegram are all inundated with messages from distraught family members and friends begging for everything from hospital beds to medicines, CT scans, doorstep Covid-19 tests, and even food for the elderly in quarantine.

The desperate pleas, hoping someone will respond with a speedy remedy, offer a peek into the unfolding tragedy buffeting a country of 1.3 billion people that now has the world's fastest-growing Covid-19 caseload.

The messages also reveal the panic and disarray amid shortages of drugs, intensive-care beds and medical oxygen.

Highlighting the grim situation, India on Wednesday (April 21) reported a record 2,023 new Covid-19 deaths, and an unprecedented 295,041 fresh cases.

The South Asian country is second only to the US in terms of total infections after surpassing Brazil.

People wait to receive shots of the vaccine against Covid-19 at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, April 21, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The surge has forced both India's financial and political capitals - Mumbai and New Delhi - to impose restrictions on movement, with the latter mandating a six-day strict lockdown starting April 20.

One particular Instagram post rattled Pottekkat. A woman at her mother's bedside described an apocalyptic scene at a hospital in the northern city of Lucknow, where people got into a scuffle to lay their hands on a fresh batch of oxygen cylinders that just arrived.

Barkha Dutt, a journalist, pointed out the shortage of crematoriums around the country, tweeting pictures of a cremation ground in Surat, a city in the western state of Gujarat.

Nowhere is the desperation more evident than in the social media feed of Ranjan Pai, the billionaire owner and co-founder of Manipal Education & Medical Group, which runs the country's second-largest hospital chain - the TPG and Temasek-backed Manipal Health Enterprises.

Pai is deluged with DMs from hundreds of people, mostly strangers, asking him for ICU beds, oxygen supplies and Covid-19 drugs.

The 7,000 beds in his 27-hospital chain are full.

"We were caught off-guard," Pai said. "No country is equipped to handle a surge this fast and this severe."

A woman being consoled as she mourns her husband who died due to Covid-19 in Ahmedabad, on April 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

In February, only 4 per cent of Manipal's beds were taken by coronavirus patients. A few weeks later, that number climbed to 65 per cent, the rest already occupied by emergency cardiac, oncology and other patients. Pai's hospitals, doctors and administrators are stretched to the limit, he said.

India's stocks and the rupee have taken a hit on concerns that the latest surge and curbs will pummel the US$2.9 trillion economy that was just recovering from a rare recession last year. The benchmark S&P BSE Sensex is down almost 9 per cent from its Feb 15 record, while the rupee is approaching an all-time low.

The collapse of the country's decrepit public health system is evident in the gut-wrenching photos on social media of multiple Covid-19 patients sharing a single hospital bed, a line of ambulances outside a hospital in Mumbai, and people dying as they wait for oxygen. Government helplines are broken. Thousands of social media forwards plead for the antiviral drug Remdesivir, and many more seek donor plasma.

There's however a bright side to this mayhem. Responders from students to technology professionals, non-profit organisations and even Bollywood actors like Sonu Sood are rallying to supply meals, circulate information on availability of hospital beds or Remdesivir.

They've amplified voices of those in need of emergency help. Total strangers are volunteering to bring supplies and food to patients' doorsteps.

Those who put together crowd-sourced, authentic information on social media are today's heroes in the current situation, said Mr Vikas Chawla, co-founder of Chennai-headquartered digital agency, Social Beat.

"It takes just a few people to step forward and make it happen," he said.

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