It was on the night of 13 April that Sukanya, a resident of HAL in Bengaluru, sent out a tweet urgently seeking vials of Remdesivir, an antiviral drug administered to COVID-19 patients. The second wave of COVID-19 cases was yet to hit its peak then and both government and volunteer efforts handling such requests were yet to be set up.
After a night of desperately calling up every possible lead, Sukanya received the vials of the drug from two sources - Mercy Mission, a volunteer organisation helping with COVID-19 relief and Srinivas BV, the National President of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC).
Several days on, social media is flooded with requests for oxygen cylinders, antiviral medicines like Remdesivir and hospital beds in different metros of India and many volunteer groups and government officials are scrambling to keep up with the rising distress calls related to COVID-19.
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While several organisations, NGOs and volunteers have been taking to social media and on ground to assist people who are in distress, the Indian Youth Congressâ€™ efforts across the country was perhaps first among political parties to start a coordinated campaign. â€śOn 7 March 2021, Rahul Gandhi told all national office bearers in a meeting that the pandemic will surge again and you should be ready to help people. So we made a team of over 1000 office bearers from across the country and started work. Currently all of them are working in the field,â€ť says IYC national president BV Srinivas when asked about what prompted their campaign.
"We put together a team of volunteers last year itself and the same team has now come together after requests started coming up for oxygen cylinders, Remdesivir and for hospital beds at the beginning of this month," says Srinivas.
A team of close to 1000 volunteers of the Youth Congress including 100 from New Delhi, headed by Srinivas, are responding to requests made to the team on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and through calls.
â€śWe are getting around 10,000 tweets on the campaign #SOSIYC from people in distress. We then segregate those requests based on what they require--oxygen, ventilator beds, medicines or doctor consultation--and then further send it to state teams for action. Apart from these requests from social media, we also get calls everyday on the numbers we have given out. Office bearers are also getting calls,â€ť says Manu Jain, national convenor of the social media wing of the IYC.
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Access to hospital beds is among the most common requests made to the volunteer team in Bengaluru. "But the saddest part is sometimes, it is out of our hands. Many patients are dying because there are no ICU beds available. We are ready to take them to hospitals but because they are not receiving beds or oxygens at the right time, people are dying," says Srinivas.
Srinivas hails from Karnataka's Shivamogga district and studied at the National College in Basavanagudi. He became the first person from Karnataka to occupy the post of the president of the Indian Youth Congress in 2020.
During the first wave of COVID-19 cases, Srinivas launched campaigns to help migrant workers in distress and helped them travel in Shramik trains to their hometowns. "What we understood about this challenge in the first wave is now helping us in the second," says Srinivas. His team is now responding to requests for plasma, oxygen cylinders and for medicines like Remdesivir and Tocilizumab. "We identified the need for plasma donors and it took an effort to convince people to donate plasma. Today, we are receiving so many requests for this," Srinivas says.
It's not just the Indian Youth Congress, but volunteer groups too are doing large amounts of work in co-ordinating patients, families, hospitals and government. In Bengaluru, a group called Mercy Mission, started COVID-19 relief work in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic. Ekramulla Sharief, handling an emergency response team connected to Mercy Mission, said that a group of 14 volunteers received 1600 calls on Monday alone. "We are receiving constant requests for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders and we are not able to tend to all of them," says Ekramulla.
But Srinivas alleges that it has not been easy getting government authorities to always respond to calls of distress routed through the IYC. â€śWe are all working till 4 am now and want to push ourselves harder to help people. But the government is unwilling to respond. We are using our network of the youth Congress to assist people,â€ť he adds.
Apart from medical help, IYC volunteers say they have also started a food kitchen in their offices and are sending food packets to hospitals. Everyday, over 2,000-3,000 food packets are reportedly sent twice a day for families of those admitted in hospitals.
The volunteers add that they are also helping people get vaccinated. â€śThere are several who donâ€™t know how to register and pay for vaccination. We are helping people with this too. We have also started an awareness campaign for plasma donation. Donors have not been coming forward because of doubts they have so we have data of people and running a campaign,â€ť says Manu Jain.
Days after people across started reaching out to IYC volunteers on social media, their counterparts in other parties like the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's youth wing too started emulating the same. An insider in the BJP told TNM that their volunteers were not visible helping people as it would seem like the government channels were not doing enough. But after a point, it was not possible to stay out of assisting people as accusations of the BJP and its workers being more involved in election rallies started gaining ground.
On April 20, BJP Yuva Morcha started state-wise COVID-19 helpline numbers to assist people who are in duress. In a statement, the BJYM said they have launched helplines for Mumbai, Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Puducherry along with Bihar, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur.