"I am feeling anxious," 30-year-old Mankiran Dhillon, who lives with her parents in Delhi, tells Refinery29. "Nobody was ready for this. Our country had a year to prepare and did nothing but hold huge rallies, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are on our own."
The rallies Mankiran refers to are part of India’s current state elections. They’ve been allowed to go ahead (with many people attending unmasked) despite the coronavirus crisis. Some people say they’ve contributed to the second wave currently devastating the country. Medical experts have condemned it as "complacent".
As India experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the spread of a double mutant variant which appears to be more virulent, people are dying daily due to lack of oxygen supplies. Every day the number of cases is rising, with over 20 million now recorded. The country has seen more than 300,000 new cases a day for nearly two weeks straight and the death toll currently stands at 222,000. It's the worst outbreak of coronavirus in the world. Meanwhile, hospitals are running out of oxygen. On Twitter, the BBC’s India editor, Vikas Pandley, is sharing story after story of hospitals where the supply is down to just a few hours left.
Delhi alone, where Mankiran is, reported more than 20,000 new infections and 407 deaths on Sunday last week. Mankiran has been using her Instagram to share stories about the coronavirus crisis in India as it unfolds. "COVID is on our doorstep," she says, "I can’t step out of the house." All of her neighbours are infected. One of them has been taken to hospital needing urgent treatment. She doesn’t know how they are.
Amid the chaos and uncertainty, social media has become a lifeline, Mankiran says. Instagram and WhatsApp have become a way of connecting with people, both those who are seeking help and those who can offer support. A support group, mainly consisting of young women like her, has been formed.
As part of that group, Mankiran has been creating daily SOS posts on her Instagram for those who are in urgent need of a bed, oxygen supply or medicine. This will tag in reliable sources and help the reach to go further. A shareable spreadsheet of contacts and resources has also been created. All the resources are verified first as there are some scams developing where oxygen cylinder prices are being tripled by those looking to cash in on the crisis.
It is heartening for me, a British Indian journalist based in the UK but with family living in Delhi, to see Mankiran’s efforts. But I can’t help feeling anxious. I am scared to click on the next news story, worried of the horror of how many deaths there will be when I refresh the page. I’ve stopped sleeping: phone calls with family members combined with the images I am being WhatsApped are making it impossible to switch off. Because of what I know happened in the UK last year, I fear that the situation will get worse before it gets better.
"The mental impact that this will leave on our generation is immeasurable," Mankiran tells me when I share my own feelings. "I know of kids who are barely teenagers and have lost both their parents. They should be enjoying college, spending time with friends and thinking about their futures. But they are dealing with a crisis that nobody in the world prepared them for."
For me, the pain of witnessing what is happening in India is one thing. But the pain of feeling that the rest of the world – particularly the UK with its huge vaccination programme, which you could argue is hoarding supplies – has turned a blind eye is heartbreaking. The ease with which some people in Britain look the other way is particularly sad when I consider the colonial connection between my two countries. The British Raj was the direct rule of India by the British Crown from 1858 to 1947. Sometimes I feel like people pick and choose which bits of history to remember. It’s heartbreaking and I feel the pain of the people in India.
When I talk to my family, they echo Mankiran’s words. "COVID is on our doorstep," they say repeatedly. It has impressed upon me that, even though the UK government’s response to COVID was far from optimum, we are lucky to have a trustworthy healthcare system and that we are (hopefully) nearly through the worst of the pandemic. India has not even reached the peak of this second wave yet.
This second wave seems to have caught India off guard. But based on what other countries have experienced, surely it wasn’t a surprise? That’s why India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing calls to resign. There is a petition and a hashtag has been doing the rounds on Facebook. Modi is a controversial figure. Last week, his government ordered US social media companies to block posts criticising their handling of the COVID-19 surge. These allegations of censorship in the world’s largest democracy are serious. Government officials, however, have responded by saying that people are using social media to create panic in Indian society.
When we speak on the phone or over WhatsApp, my own family tells me repeatedly that "this mess was avoidable". They want to know why the government didn’t prepare for a second wave or put the country into lockdown. They feel that Modi’s government has been more focused on winning elections at all costs and that COVID was not taken seriously by the leader of the country.
Like Mankiran, 24-year-old Dimple Purohit, a former investment banker from Bangalore, is trying to do what she can through her Instagram.
Dimple is creating posts about the sociopolitical aspect of India’s current crisis. She wants to cut through the noise and disinformation and she feels the world needs to know about what’s going on. "I am posting on my Instagram all day every day with updates," she tells Refinery29. "I know there is a lot of false information so I want to help by giving as much accurate information as I can."
Since the second wave hit India, Dimple has been working on finding, verifying and amplifying the available resources. She says that social media is a way of connecting people who are in need across different states and cities in the country.
"This should have been the government’s responsibility," she sighs. "There is also a lot of chaos and to help reduce this, I have been helping different organisations and groups that are created for COVID relief with as many volunteers as they need. This includes everything from raising funds to running ambulance services. I’ve also been coming up with strategies to better organise and streamline the process of helping people."
"We know that the government isn’t coming to save us," she adds. "We cannot blindly keep up the hopes even after losing countless lives, so the citizens and volunteers are creating a better system for ourselves."
Due to the rising death toll, there are huge queues and a waiting time of at least 24 hours outside crematoriums. Dimple explains: "Everywhere you turn, there are mass cremations happening. We can smell death in the air we’re breathing. The official numbers do not even begin to do justice to the real number of people losing their lives. People are literally begging for oxygen."
Dimple cannot get over the fact that these deaths were avoidable. "We were not prepared," she told me. "There was one whole year and the government didn’t think it was important enough to prepare for something this big. At a time when you expect the government's focus to be on directing all resources to saving its people, its focus was party politics. At a time when people were dying in large numbers, it not only allowed but promoted these huge, super-spreader religious gatherings. And they still aren’t doing anything to prevent all these deaths."
When it comes to attempts to censor what Indian people have to say on social media, Dimple says: "I think the common emotion that we all are feeling is of being helpless, silenced, suffocated." She adds that some people are scared to post anything online, even if it’s just asking for help.
This is a rational fear. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is governed by Modi’s ruling BJP party, anyone who puts out an SOS or "help" call for oxygen has been told that they could face criminal charges and even jail. Such calls, the state’s leaders have said, are "rumours" and "propaganda". Only last week, a man was arrested for putting out what police officers said was a "false tweet" SOS call because his grandfather was dying. Critics say the move reflects a general erosion of civil liberties and freedom of speech in India which has occurred over the past few years.
"The fact that the government isn’t helping is enraging enough in itself," Dimple tells me, "but the added social media censorship means that people are being kept from helping one another. The government still wants to paint a happy picture at an international level and will go to any length to keep their people in distress if the truth risks ruining that."
Young women like Dimple and Mankiran are leading support. They won’t let the government off the hook or allow the world to look away. Twenty-eight-year-old Rasna Bhasin, a brand consultant and content creator from New Delhi, has stopped using her Instagram page to promote her work and made it into a COVID support page. She has 94.1k followers.
Rasna’s focus is helping people to find affordable and reliable oxygen. "I am supporting those in different states of India where it is extremely bad," she told Refinery29. "People are standing in queues. People are standing in queues trying to get oxygen which is being marketed illegally and it’s now more expensive than any other commodity."
"It started with four of us friends,'' she explains, "then it was 10 and now there are 18 of us all helping to find oxygen for hospitals. We find leads and verify them to make sure they are legitimate before posting about them."
India’s health systems are stretched to their limit, collapsing before our eyes. The entire country is suffering.
"It’s heart-wrenching to see so many losing their loved ones to COVID," Rasna concluded. "As a Sikh, I believe selfless service can help and I believe this virus can be fought. But I have also lost people to the virus, my friends have lost loved ones. It’s making me feel numb inside."
Rasna and team have been named the Seva Sisters. This is a reference to a religious group which does outreach work to combat inequality. Working around the clock, Rasna is joining forces with people from all walks of life; they have set up a fundraiser to help source oxygen supplies and offer guides on how to manage COVID at home, how to manage an oxygen meter and how people can help from wherever they are.
I am sad about what is happening in India and that sadness is compounded by the fact that Indian people are being pressured into not speaking out about what is going on. It shouldn’t be down to individuals and charities to do the work of government but seeing young women turn their Instagrams into such a powerful resource gives me hope.
Here are some ways that you can help India as it grapples with the world's worst coronavirus outbreak:
UNICEF is rushing urgently needed equipment like oxygen concentrators, PPE kits, hygiene supplies and diagnostic testing systems to India. Click here to donate.
The Migrant Workers Solidarity Network was established last year after several migrant workers walked hundreds of miles back home in India after the sudden lockdown. Migrant workers continue to struggle during the current lockdown and are rushing to get back home once again. Click here to donate.
The Indian Red Cross Society is accepting donations from across the world for COVID relief. Canada pledged 10 million dollars to the Indian Red Cross Society to help fight COVID in India. Apart from financial donations, you can also donate ventilators, masks, sanitiser bottles, gloves and dry ration at their state branches, if you live in India. Some state branches are also providing pick-up and drop facilities to those wishing to donate blood. Click here to donate.
In collaboration with the SaveLife Foundation, Breathe India is raising funds for oxygen concentrators in India’s capital, New Delhi. Click here to donate.