In Twitter We Trust: How the Social Network Has Turned into a COVID-19 Directory


In Twitter We Trust: How the Social Network Has Turned into a COVID-19 Directory

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Barely a month ago, social media timelines painted a rosy picture of the outside world. The travel influencers were back in action, offices had begun opening their doors to their staff, and talk of vaccines filled timelines with hope. The coronavirus seemed to slowly look like a relic of the past, as restaurants and bars started to fill up, and pictures of friends holidaying together resurfaced on timelines. Many of us, it seemed, had begun to let our guards down after nearly six months in solitude.

Things have, obviously, changed since. As summer hit the sub-continent, the country’s situation took a turn for the worse. By the anniversary of our first nationwide lockdown, it was clear that India was bracing for an even deadlier second wave. Merely days later, this warning quickly manifested itself into a disaster.

Many of us, it seemed, had begun to let our guards down after nearly six months in solitude.

Coronavirus cases are now spiralling out of control, and the news is getting grimmer – we’ve recorded the world’s biggest daily spike today with 3.14 lakh cases. Stories of finally escaping months of lockdown have made their way for horrible tales of senior citizens grappling without Oxygen supplies, 30-somethings succumbing to the disease, and vaccinations proving to not be as effective as expected.

The second wave has already proven to be as deadly than the first, if not more. As confirmed by dozens of concerned healthcare experts on television, and almost every front page headline in the newspapers, we are struggling with a lack of infrastructure to deal with this very sudden surge in infections. News of further lockdowns are now threatening to trigger another migrant crisis, and once again, a massive chunk of the country is back to worrying about where their next paycheck will come from. But while the rise in numbers are evident, these statistics shouldn’t cloud our vision. The reality of the situation, as seen on social media, is a lot more personal.

The reality of the situation, as seen on social media, is a lot more personal.

As COVID-19 hits home for lakhs of families, complaints about having to work from bedrooms and Zoom fatigue, have slowly made way for urgent pleas for hospital beds, Oxygen cylinders, and medicines. Twitter has emerged as the darkest timeline, in this regard, as posts about grandparents with dangerously low saturation levels, and siblings with blood requirements continue to persist day after day. If the message from our healthcare staff over the last year wasn’t clear enough, these personal accounts have been a hard-hitting reminder that India has failed to control the pandemic.

Amid this gloom, however, social media users have stepped up their game. Faced with all these stories of personal tragedy, many have taken it upon themselves to help in whatever way they can — even if it’s just to share and amplify as many pleas as possible. This in effect, has ended up turning one particular platform — Twitter — into one of this pandemic’s most reliable and helpful resources, over the month of April.

As breaking news headlines announce that hospitals have been turning patients away, Twitter posts detailing where the few beds are available have been multiplying at an alarming rate. When several states complain of a lack of oxygen, the Twitterverse has stepped in with a list of distributors that have tanks ready to deploy.

Personalities across the spectrum — from Sonu Sood to Kusha Kapila to several hundred micro-influencers — have transformed their timelines into Covid directories that can help struggling patients find critical requirements. By simply amplifying these desperate requests, they’ve also been able to assist thousands of suffering patients find plasma donors, or hospital beds.

It isn’t just influencers who are doing their bit. Those who have pharmaceutical contacts have begun to compile Google docs with information on where to find the life-saving Remdesivir, or hospitals that have ventilators and ICUs at the ready.

Other good samaritans, who don’t necessarily have any healthcare contacts, meanwhile, have been offering whatever services they can. Several have pledged to deliver fresh and healthy meals, some have offered to feed and walk pets who can’t be cared for, and many have offered to clean up the homes of those affected in their spare time. In Hyderabad, law student Ritik Shahi is running errands – delivering groceries and medication – for those in isolation. In Mumbai, there are many like Twitter user @desimarthastew who are preparing meals for those hit by the second wave.

And as anyone who has already had Covid-19 can attest, there’s no understating how helpful that could be when down with the sickness.

That being said, it is important to mention that there are some drawbacks to creating such a large unofficial directory, especially considering how critical the information on offer is. The most obvious — not every number that’s shared on Twitter is independently verified before it’s posted, which leads to a lot of back and forth, which those with severe symptoms, don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to deal with.

Then, of course, is the question of accessibility.

Then, of course, is the question of accessibility. It’s a known fact that a large part of the country doesn’t use social media, especially platforms like Twitter. For women, meanwhile, as is often the case in the country, putting up personal information online leads to abuse and harassment, as one woman reminds us in Vice.

Still, even taking these drawbacks into account, it’s clear that social media timelines aren’t the same as they were back in February. As the second wave tears apart families, users have used their vast networks to help thousands of critically ill people get help, even if it’s to simply amplify the voices of those in need. So, obviously, while we can’t rely on Twitter to singlehandedly save the country from the pandemic, it’s worth commending the influencers who have proven all through the last month what social media is truly capable of when used the right way. Right now, we need it more than ever.