India’s youth fight COVID-19 epidemic with apps and oxygen

    Mumbai: Schoolgirl Swadha Prasad gets her real job done: finding life-saving oxygen, drugs and hospital beds for patients with COVID-19 as India is spared the second wave of infection.

    As his government struggled to cope with the epidemic, young Indians stepped into the breech, setting up apps to help crowdsource, provide key supplies and require people to direct resources using social media.

    Prasad works with dozens of volunteers – all aged between 14 and 19 – as part of the youth-led organization UNCUT, creating an online database packed with information about medical resources available around the country .

    It is a 24/7 operation, in which teens continuously work on their phones as they verify supply availability, update information to actual relatives and field calls from frantic relatives.

    17-year-old Prasad said, “Some of us work in the morning shift at midnight because the call does not stop at 3 in the morning.”

    It is a long and often tiring affair, said a Mumbai student, but said: “If I can help save a life, there is no part of me that I shouldn’t say.”

    READ: ‘No one should die’: Volunteers provide oxygen as India’s COVID-19 tally is near 20 million

    More lives were saved, she said, pointing to a case where the team was able to source oxygen for a young COVID-19 patient in the middle of the night after a two-hour wait.

    “It’s not just about providing resources … sometimes people just need to know that they are not alone”, he said.

    “Auxin Man”

    With two-thirds of the 1.3-billion people under the age of 35, India is a very young country, but its youth has never been called upon to perform such huge responsibilities.

    As India’s epidemic has become ever more dystopian – walking out of the crematorium with space and patients, including a former ambassador, dying in hospital parking – many have volunteered to attend drums .

    In Mumbai’s slums, Shanawaz Sheikh has provided oxygen to thousands of people for free.

    Shanawaz Sheikh checks the pressure of a cylinder in an oxygen delivery center

    Shanawaz Sheikh (right) checks the pressure of a cylinder in an oxygen distribution center in a Mumbai slum. (Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee)

    Popular as “Oxygen Man”, the 32-year-old sold his cherished SUV last June after trying to be hospitalized when his friend’s pregnant cousin died in a rickshaw.

    “She died because she couldn’t get oxygen on time,” he told AFP.

    He did not expect so much fielding after almost a year.

    “We used to have about 40 calls a day last year, now it’s like 500,” he said.

    Sheikh’s team of 20 volunteers, who are struggling with the worst situation of Sheikh, is also suffering from acute shortage.

    “It’s a test of one’s faith,” he said, describing how they sometimes carry oxygen for dozens of kilometers for desperate patients.

    “But when I am able to help someone, I feel like crying.”

    Overvolunted Volunteers

    Software engineer Umang Galaiya told AFP that big cities have suffered the brunt so far, but the limitations of the technology are becoming clear.

    Urgent requests for supplies and additional hospital beds have led to a flood of leads on Twitter – many unconfirmed.

    Galaiya responded by creating an app to make it easier for users to know what they are looking for and, importantly, limit their search to only verified resources.

    But even then, his app is unlikely to help people outside the big cities, the 25-year-old said, citing the example of his hometown in the hard-hitting Gujarat state where internet usage is low.

    “If I look for resources in Jamnagar, there is nothing on Twitter,” he said.

    Ultimately, the epidemic cannot be defeated without the government, he said, outlining simple measures that could have saved many lives.

    For example, officials created a real-time, online registry of beds could be updated automatically, allowing distressed patients to attempt to walk from one pack facility to another.

    “If we can do it for movie theaters, to avoid overbooking, why can’t we do it for hospitals?” He asked.

    READ: Indian industry body urges to curb economic activities to save lives

    The Bengaluru-based tech worker said the youth-led efforts were also unstable, pointing out that overwhelmed volunteers would run out of energy themselves as the virus ravaged their cities.

    The trauma of facing illness and death is already visible.

    “We work very hard, but we can’t save everyone,” said Kishore Prasad of Mumbai, his voice worthy as he recalled attempts to help an 80-year-old woman who had died.

    However they take a break and try to organize Zoom movie watching sessions, and the tension never fully spreads.

    “My parents worry about it,” she said.

    “But when their friends need help, they also turn to me.”

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