By Nayana Prakash for the OII’s #DigitalInequality blog series
Like many Indians living abroad, I have been simultaneously glued to and scared by the news coming from India in relation to its cataclysmic COVID-19 crisis. As millions turn to social media to request oxygen, plasma and hospital beds, amongst other quotidian yet life-saving resources, one thing is abundantly clear. The Indian government has failed spectacularly in providing information and resources to countless people. It has fallen to ordinary citizens – themselves besieged by the virus – to paper over the cracks in the country’s health infrastructure. While there are numerous questions to be asked of India’s healthcare provision system, this blog post will examine the growing role of social media and technology as used by civilians to combat the COVID-19 crisis in India – and the problems this creates.
Fundraising for Healthcare: A Global Problem
In many ways, the problem of crowdsourcing solutions for health-related crises is not unique to India. GoFundMe, an American crowdfunding platform which has raised over $9billion for various projects and causes, has revealed that one-third of all donations on the site go towards healthcare costs. In a recent tweet, the platform argued against this structure, advocating instead for affordable health insurance (Figure 1). Even prior to this, sardonic jokes have proliferated on Twitter, noting the way that GoFundMe’s purpose had changed since its creation in 2010 (Figure 2).
As CEO Rob Solomon has himself said, ““The [American healthcare] system is terrible. It needs to be rethought and retooled. Politicians are failing us. Health care companies are failing us. Those are realities. I don’t want to mince words here…We shouldn’t be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems.” That America is one of the richest countries in the world only renders this failing even more tragic.
What does it mean when citizens of a country cannot rely on the state to provide low-cost, quality healthcare and must instead rely on the kindness of strangers on the Internet to support them? What if people attempting to crowdfund life-changing surgeries can’t parse their experience into the type of language which generates sympathy and financial support? What will happen when the goodwill of those strangers is exhausted? During a large-scale financial crisis, when so many are furloughed or unemployed, depending on people’s ability to provide spare change is a gambit that will cost lives.
India, COVID-19 and social media
Yet the situation in India is more dire still. The urgency of the COVID crisis has only exacerbated people’s desperation to find what many of us in the West have taken for granted. While other countries have been devastated by their death tolls, those of us living in the West have never had to consider how we would find oxygen or plasma for our friends and family, should they be infected. In the last months, Indians have taken to Twitter, Facebook and other unusual social media platforms – such as Tinder – to seek information on beds, oxygen and antiviral drugs. The lack of reliable information from government websites, many of which do not present resource lists in user-friendly ways, means that social media is tasked with a great and insurmountable challenge: to save one of the world’s biggest nations, experiencing one of its biggest-ever crises.
I realised how desperate the situation must be recently when my parents asked me if I knew where a family friend could find a hospital bed in Delhi. How frantic must they be, I thought, to ask me – sitting far away in Oxford, England – if I knew of any beds in Delhi, a city where I have no contacts. I rapidly searched through my Twitter feed to find any information I could, noting that there was no way to verify whether the Tweets I were seeing were up-to-date and indeed, accurate at all. In a country where mis-and disinformation continue to be rampant on social media, there are certainly a great many drawbacks to having life-saving information shared via ordinary citizen accounts. Some Indian social media users have noted that along with potentially helpful information, they have also accessed a number of wrong numbers and outdated resource lists. Furthermore, along with citizens trying to connect people to essential supplies, there is also a burgeoning black market. Without online gatekeepers, the sick and dying are reliant on the labour of faceless volunteers. Many of these are trying their best to help in the absence of useful government intervention, but a small minority is cashing in on peoples’ desperation.
In the midst of catastrophe, there is perhaps a tendency to mythologise the bravery and goodness of ordinary people. And indeed, we should be awed by the courage of those who, in the midst of disaster, work towards saving lives. Yet we must be angry, too, because it has fallen to civilians to do the work of a government. A recent article in Indian publication The Economic Times details the monies raised via crowdfunding platforms during the recent COVID-19 surge, arguing that “The success of these crowdfunding platforms proves that calamities indeed bring humans together.” This is neoliberal propaganda, aimed to paint government failure as human charity, and the crisis as an economic opportunity which could pave the way for future investment. For those of us living abroad, it is true that crowdfunding is a valuable way to help, but it cannot, and should not, exist to whitewash the inadequacies of the government.
Those trying to raise funds and run volunteer groups also risk coercion by the police, who are wary of anti-government messages which may be implied in citizens’ online pleas for help. During a national crisis, it is patently obvious that the police and governmental figures are spending more time responding to perceived threats to India’s international reputation than considering their own role in escalating this catastrophe. Ironically, of course, such attempts to police content on social media have a far more damaging impact on the perception of India’s government than any tweets could achieve.
Social media has been something of a godsend during the events of the last year. It has been a crucial tool for activists raising awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement and the occupation of Palestine. Indian citizens are using it to source resources and save lives. Nevertheless, while social media demonstrates solidarity across borders, it also tellingly indicates institutional failures. In India’s case, I worry that a downturn in social media posts about the pandemic – whether due to organisers being silenced or such posts being retweeted less – will send the message that the crisis is over. This pandemic is far from ending. The public is mercurial, its attention fickle, yet Indians will continue to die long after we stop being shocked about it. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, while valid and important ways to seek help, rely far too much on the whims of irregular funders; and, furthermore, funders who may themselves be experiencing hardship after a devastating year. It is grossly insensitive to expect citizens in need to continue to have to perform their suffering for us online so that we may direct funds towards them. Additionally, it is devastating to think about how many Indians might be dying because they do not have access to social media to seek help and resources. As the epicentre of the pandemic has moved to rural India, there are fewer calls for help online; Indians in these communities are less active on the Internet and thus cannot crowdsource help this way. Without government policy and intervention, essential health services will continue to be games that can be won and lost online, coin tosses that depend on luck, amplification and generous strangers. When governments start looking beyond the COVID-19 crisis that has besieged the world (admittedly, a difficult task for Indians at present), they need to work towards providing essential services rather than leaving the lives of their citizens to social media trends.
 Twitter now has a verified list of resources for the Indian COVID crisis: https://twitter.com/i/events/1385596085192691712
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