“Need an oxygen cylinder urgently in Noida,” reads one tweet, scroll down and another one asks, “Any leads on ventilator beds in Patna?” Ever since the second wave of COVID-19 made its wrath felt in India, social media platforms like Twitter have become an impromptu aggregator for crucial resources like beds, medication, vaccines and now even crematorium availability.
“Last year we were not prepared for the pandemic, people were facing the issue for the first time and even the government wasn’t sure of what had to be done,” says Mishika Singh, a Delhi-based human rights lawyer. A year later, mismanagement has taken thousands of lives across the country as the pandemic rages on and health services are pushed to the brink. Singh is the force behind a major petition demanding that the government create a centrally updated database with information on beds, oxygen, medication, and other urgent resources.
She pointed out that one of the main apps that have been pushed by the government is Aarogya Setu which allows people to find out whether they have been in contact with anyone who is COVID-19 positive or if anyone has tested positive in their vicinity. But, even that has been largely inefficient with people sharing that the app hasn’t shown them any warnings even when their own families and neighbours tested positive.
“The petition was started to have basic COVID-19 protocols, built into Aarogya Setu,” says Singh, explaining that since it was mandatory for people to have it, it would be easier than building a new database or app. The idea was to have the app indicate how many COVID hospitals were nearest to the person, availability of beds as well as non-COVID hospitals for other emergencies, she remarks.
Speaking about what sparked the idea, she says, “I had people around me who didn’t know what their rights were.” After testing positive, Singh’s friend in Uttar Pradesh called her out of panic because they’d received a notice saying that they would be picked up and taken to a facility but they couldn’t leave their elderly family members alone. “How do you assert a right that no one has told you exists,” she asks. “That’s how the petition started to demand that relevant information be provided.”
Need for a proactive government response
The need for the centralised database has become more severe with the new wave with thousands of lives being lost to a shortage of life-saving resources. Singh’s petition has been addressed to the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the Health Minister. Singh has also personally written to Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan with her recommendations.
While health is a state subject which implies that state authorities are to be responsible for its management, earlier last year, the Union government invoked its powers under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to enhance the preparedness and containment of COVID-19 at hospitals.
However, some states have fared much better in their capabilities to delegate resources more efficiently. In Mumbai, where the cases had shot up initially, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) set up a COVID-19 war room which helps in triaging patients. An all-Mumbai BMC dashboard provides real-time updates of bed availability across all COVID facilities. Handlers manage incoming calls and classify patients depending on the severity of their infection and liaise with hospitals depending on the availability of beds and other requirements. States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala too follow similar protocols and were able to exercise better control over the situation, thereby preventing widespread panic and deaths unlike in other states.
“On Twitter and WhatsApp, every group that I’m a part of has become an SOS group,” says Singh, noting that in emergency situations, people are forced to call over 2,000 numbers to frantically secure a hospital bed for their loved ones. “Everyone is looking for verified leads but what is verified now, after two hours could become unavailable or out of stock,” she remarks. She points to Delhi’s dashboard, which is only for hospital beds and is missing out on other key elements like medication and oxygen cylinder availability. She insists that the government needs to put everything in one place and keep verifying it. “It’s literally the government’s job, it shouldn’t be school and college students coming together and verifying each number,” she says.
The second wave has only deepened the gap between urban populations — who have access to the internet to be able to find resources — and the rural population whose voices and demands are still going unheard. “I don’t understand why a central database is not being made, the only reason I can understand is lack of intent which is very scary,” says Singh. “It’s not a mammoth task and if people like us can do it, then what’s stopping the government,” she questions.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)