No Patient Left Offline: The Internet and India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Here at Digital Peace Now, we’re deeply concerned that our governments have yet to fully prepare for the continued escalation cyberwarfare. It’s an urgent issue that has loomed over us for years—with each new attack hinting at more aggressive attacks to come. In response to what cyberwarfare could evolve into if left unchecked, we need a collaborative and proactive approach from our world leaders. The COVID-19 outbreak has shown us what happens when government preparedness falls short. When the pandemic caught the world off guard, countries found themselves scrambling to address the crisis. Over a year later, some countries are still paying a heavy price for not having the right systems in place.

India has faced a disastrous second wave of the virus. As this blog is being published, India holds the record for highest number of coronavirus infections on a single day: 314,835 active cases. On May 17, 2021, India reported 4,329 deaths, making the official COVID-19 Indian death count surpass 279,000.

The recent pushed India’s healthcare system to a breaking point. With hospitals at full capacity, health officials announced several of India’s states, including New Delhi, face a serious crisis. Some facilities have run out of oxygen, while others will soon extinguish their remaining supply. The Deputy Chief Minister admitted that “after some time, saving lives would be difficult” in a televised address. On April 22, the Supreme Court of India issued a notice to the central government demanding a plan of action to address the shortage of medical necessities, such as oxygen and medicine.

Around the same time the crises began picking up, I noticed a surge in Instagram DMs. My inbox began to overflow with messages from family members of COVID-19 patients asking for help in their search for essential medical supplies, like hospital beds and/or oxygen cylinders. After my initial wave of heartbreak, I pulled myself together and went into full crisis mode. I aggressively promoted their calls for help on my platform in hopes of finding a lead.

There is, rightfully, plenty of skepticism towards people organizing the sourcing of medical equipment online without the structure and support of a healthcare organization or government oversight. In fact, there is currently a black market effort to profit from this crisis. With such a large demand for specific medical equipment, shady opportunists have been using online platforms to sell overpriced medical supplies to those in need. However, at the same time, this online movement has had a direct and positive impact on many, creating hope and driving others to join the effort.

Indian citizens have turned to social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, to create a collective SOS call. Al Jazeera recognized how Indian citizens transformed Twitter into a platform of hope, noting an interesting case regarding, Indian lawyer, Jeevika Shiv. Shiv shared this post on Twitter: “Serious #covid19 patient in #Delhi with oxygen level 62 needs an immediate hospital bed.” Thanks to this post, the patient accessed a hospital bed fairly quickly, and eventually showed signs of recovery.

In the face of healthcare infrastructure’s shortcomings in addressing COVID-19, the Internet offered a collectively suffering country hope. Citizens wielded this tool in solidarity—using our online connection to hop borders at lightning speed and distribute life-saving information.

T.L., a 22-year-old master’s student, reached out to me via Instagram asking if I could amplify a request for medicine in Kolkata for her father. T.L., who belongs to a family of four, found herself taking care of her aunt and her father during the pandemic. For her, the Internet became a refuge. She shared that, “since the day my father and aunt got admitted, every time I closed my eyes, I only got flashbacks. Yesterday, I came across a page which provided free therapy to anyone who needed it during these tough times. I was connected to someone and spoke to the person. It helped me in getting 3-4 hours of sleep last night.”

When I asked her how difficult it was to find medicine, she said, “The number of people who came forward to help in procuring remdesivir was overwhelming. People I didn’t even know texted me saying that they’d help me in any way possible.”

Her father, who is suffering from pneumonia and a lung infection, is being given oxygen, but Taran tells me she is hopeful and continues praying that he shows improvement soon.

R., a volunteer with a WhatsApp group involved with India’s crowdsource relief effort told me, “The Internet has been extremely important in dealing with the COVID-19 emergency, because the people have come together in such a way that they have created a list of verified sources. Members of this group call potential sources for hours till they pick up and confirm that they can provide a particular resource. Influencers are coming together and making the most of their reach. I know people who have found hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, refilled them and then given them to other people. The support has been immense.”

A safe and secure Internet has enabled digital citizens to step in and organize assistance where they saw shortcomings. The members of the volunteer WhatsApp group belong to various cities across India and have gone on to help over 50 people within four days. And they are not alone—many groups, just like this one, are collating information and putting it out on the Internet. There is even a website featuring these lists and directing users to the closest source.

The Internet, this same tool that is being used to save lives today, is being used by governments to attack a variety of targets, including healthcare. As we focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization has been under a barrage of cyberattacks. According to them, these attacks have increased five times compared to the same period last year. Some of the world’s biggest healthcare institutions have also faced several cyberattacks since the pandemic started, which include The European Medicines Agency, Brno University Hospital, Serum Institute of India, and Ireland’s Health Service Executive. These attacks should concern us all.

We cannot allow any complacency when it comes to protecting our digital space. We need to demand world leaders step up and take real action. They must establish international agreements to protect our online world, which has played a critical role in our daily lives and in saving lives, from the growing threat of state-sponsored cyberattacks before we find ourselves in a state of emergency.

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Written by Gurmehar Kaur, Digital Peace Now’s Global Ambassador.