SOSIndia4U verified helplines and information on oxygen, medicines and bed availability put out on social media during the second wave of COVID-19 in India. These were made easily accessible to anyone looking for help during this devastating second wave through an online app and through our social media networks. The project had an incredible all-women team of 8 researchers and journalists working nine hours a day, everyday, for 4 months.
The second wave in India led to a public health emergency and a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and drugs. Several social media users as well as forwards via Whatsapp would put out information on the availability of these, but patients and their families were often wasting time on leads that were either false or old. To cut through the barrage of information, and help those in need, we verified helplines for hospitals, government control rooms, medicine, telemedicine, ambulance, blood plasma (until the government recommended stopping its use), food services for COVID-19 patients, diagnostic centres and oxygen suppliers. We also hosted information on vaccination centres and available slots on the app.
We found that contrary to popular belief, government helplines were more accessible and better placed than private contacts to provide emergency relief. In some cases, although the numbers provided to reach out to for help were accurate, they didn’t have stock or beds available at that time. We would keep in touch and update our database as beds would become available.
Between April 15, 2021 and July 15, 2021, we verified helplines for 135 cities, three union territories and both urban and rural areas in 1 state, Goa. We also verified 34 NGOs seeking COVID-19-related donations.
We partnered with Truecaller that hosted our reliable COVID-19 relief information. Thanks to this partnership, over 3 million people benefited from verified information and leads at a time when they were desperate for it. We are also a part of the Covid Relief India Alliance (CRIA) for COVID helplines, and our database is available on their website as well. This project was an amalgamation of our efforts at fact checking as well as of public service.
We used a hand-on approach–on average, each fact-checker made 40-50 calls per day for verification, resulting in a total of nearly 300 calls a day. We entered the information we gathered on two google sheets, one which had information gathered from social media posts. Then our team would call up these leads and verify the information, which was then entered into a second sheet, which was the database that was showcased on the website. In our efforts to find and verify leads, we looked at not just social media posts but also checked out other volunteer run helplines and other google docs and sheets that were being circulated as having verified information. By the end of the project, we had information on 11 categories of assistance that those with COVID-19 might require.
Unlike the other databases, many of which were volunteer-run, we chose to hire 6 full-time fact-checkers and 2 supervisors, who verified not only new information but also updated previously verified information. Most of our verifications had time-stamps so patients and families would know if it had been recently verified.
We had set up 2 helplines on social media platforms–a Telegram channel with 120 members and a WhatsApp helpline–which received 360 messages for help.
What was the hardest part of this project?
During India’s second wave of COVID-19, social media was flooded with both people asking for
help as well as people posting unverified information on aid for Covid-19 patients. Some of these were fake, some were scammers, cheating people at their most vulnerable. SOSINDIA4U ensured people got the right information at the time of crisis, when every minute meant a life could be saved.
This was despite several members of our team facing tough personal times with 2 team members contracting COVID-19 in the midst of what had been, until now, the worst that India had seen in the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the country, there were at least 31.4 million confirmed cases and 421,382 deaths from the virus between April and July 2021, when our project was operational.
Moreover, since the team was all women, there were instances of harassment when they would call to verify leads, especially when the leads were not genuine. In addition, there were emotional moments as often we had people in need reaching out for help from cities or areas for which we had no information.
Another discovery was that there was no information available regarding rural areas; even though we often followed up leads, most of these turned out to be dead ends, a frustrating experience for the volunteers. What we began to do was provide the information for the nearest urban area to those who reached out from rural areas.
What can others learn from this project?
In the chaos of the second COVID-19 wave, people came together to help others, but there were also many who tried to profit from people’s misery. For instance, people would pay up and then realise that they had been scammed for even life-saving things such as oxygen. As journalists and fact-checkers, we felt that the least we could do was provide reliable information.
This project is an example of how a journalist, a fact checker’s role, in such times, is not limited to news or telling stories but in providing the public with accurate and timely information that can save lives.