Hope And Heartbreak On Indian Covid Twitter
Twenty-six-year-old Jyoti Yadav had never covered the health beat but when The Print’s Lucknow reporter fell sick (like every second journalist there), she was catapulted into this hotspot of India’s unfolding Covid-19 crisis. For the first few days things seemed manageable, she said, but then all hell broke loose. Since then she’s wandered the city like a watchful spirit, distributing masks to ill-equipped constables; and counting deaths at crematorium grounds where young men, many of them teenagers, work tirelessly, preparing lines of wood pyres for those they know are coming.
On April 18, PTI reported that Uttar Pradesh registered its highest single-day rise in Covid-19 cases and fatalities—30,596 and 129 respectively. As Twitter burned with images of cremations in U.P., and as the administration in Ghaziabad began constructing funeral platforms on pavements, everybody knew these fatalities were a gross underestimation.
The photo gallery on Yadav’s phone overflows with pictures of ambulances, bodies, and burning pyres, the detritus of families who never received any help or even acknowledgement from the state.
An emotionally wrenching moment was when she met a desperate Harshit Srivastava on April 17 at Lucknow’s Covid Command Centre in Lalbagh. “His hands were shaking even as he kept dialling hospitals trying to get help for his father Vinay.”
Hospitals had refused to admit the veteran journalist—who had tweeted the previous day that his oxygen level reading was at a dangerous 52—because he didn’t have a letter from the Chief Medical Officer. Yadav confirmed that many hospitals were not admitting those without a reference letter from the CMO, even if they had a Covid positive certificate. Harshit was trying to get that letter.
Yadav advised Harshit to log on from his father’s account and tweet more about the older man’s rapidly deteriorating health. She amplified his tweets and soon, Vinay’s story went viral. But it was too late. No state official came forward to help and, with no medical care, Vinay died at 3.30 p.m. that day.
The story of the journalist who live-tweeted his own death became one of the saddest in the annals of Indian Covid Twitter.
Later that day, Yadav visited the Srivastava home after convincing a guard to let her through a barricade in the locality that had reported many Covid cases. The family was distraught, no help had come yet—even close relatives who lived next door had stayed away—so Yadav tweeted some more. Help eventually came the next day.
“Only one percent of the thousands of cases on Twitter are getting help,” said Yadav. The day we spoke, Yadav quote tweeted a plea for help from the previous day with this update: “Patient has died in the morning.”
As India’s Covid-19 crisis deepened with the country’s top politicians seemingly unaffected by the alarming spike in Covid cases (India reported 2,59,170 new Covid-19 cases and 1,761 deaths in the last 24 hours), heartbreak, and hope unfolded in real time on Indian Twitter.
The day Vinay Srivastava died, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a campaign rally in Asansol, West Bengal, “Have never seen such huge crowds at a rally.”
Tweets criticising Modi prompted illustrator Rachita Taneja (@sanitarypanels) to create a powerful image of a man at a podium mouthing these words. In his audience are many burning pyres.
“Wherever I look I can only see people and more people,” the Prime Minister, wearing a kantha stole (an embroidery craft from that region) added, raising both his arms in the air theatrically. “I can’t see anything else.”
Assam’s health minister had his own scientific take on the matter. “We have found no data connecting election rallies and Covid cases,” Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted. Earlier this month, Sarma had announced that there was no Covid in Assam. More recently, Union Minister Piyush Goyal warned that “states must keep oxygen demand under control”.
Even outside the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, heroes fell hard.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan turned out to be an anti-masker like any other conspiracy theory-driven WhatsApp uncle. “Wearing facemasks has been demonstrated to have substantial adverse physiological & psychological effects,” Bhushan tweeted. Twitter deleted his tweet and suspended his account for a week.
Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja, whose strategy to fight Covid has been celebrated internationally, said the festival of Thrissur Pooram couldn't be cancelled as “it will cause many problems”. The state has since then decided to curtail public participation.
Celebrities—including one BJP minister (who later issued a clarification)—tweeted asking for help finding hospital beds for Covid patients. Even as Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who had announced the “endgame” of the pandemic in March, found time in the midst of a national crisis to pen a snarky response to a letter written by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Modi, the Twitter timeline of National President of the Indian Youth Congress, Srinivas BV stood out for its methodical, and steady responses to frantic calls for help.
The country’s best health reporters were at their wit’s end. “The incredible burden of proof on journalists to show that the administration messed up,” tweeted journalist Priyanka Pulla. “And the zero demand for the administration to share the information they are legally obligated to share. How did it come to this?”
Meanwhile, as has been the case in recent years, young people saved the day.
Hyderabad law student Rikit Shahi, 21, tweeted that he was happy to run errands for those who couldn’t in his neighbourhood. “Surgical masks, Knorr soup, dustbin cover, chocolates or anything else,” he tweeted. “I will deliver it at your doorstep.”
Shahi said he lost his grandmother in 2013 due to poor healthcare in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. “I know how it feels. So if there’s anything I can do to help, I will,” he told me.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.