On April 22, India reported three lakh new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours for the second consecutive day, and 2,247 new deaths. The country’s second COVID-19 outbreak at this point was en route to a towering high – and still growing – and New Delhi’s healthcare system was in tatters.
People were gasping for oxygen, hospital beds were running out, and ventilators, oxygen canisters and antiviral drugs became precious commodities. After hospital and state helplines stopped being useful, people turned to the social media to get help for families in need. The cascade of messages that began around then are familiar to all of us today.
“Urgently need an oxygen cylinder in Agra. Any leads will be helpful”
“Urgent!!! Please Help Need an ICU bed in Greater Noida, patient very critical”
These ‘SOS’ calls rang across Facebook, WhatsApp groups and Twitter. Sadly, however, they were diluted in a sea of hearsay and unverified responses.
Milan Roy, Swapnil Sharma and Pranit Ganvir, three graduates of IIT Delhi (2019), were following the flood of messages on their phones.
“We knew that the Delhi government had started putting out data on its official website about the availability of beds in different hospitals,” Roy said. “However, people either did not know about this or could not access it easily. Most people in need were on the move while they were looking for these resources.”
The three men decided to set up a webapp that could help families and friends navigate this data better.
“On April 22 night, we sat down and created an app … working our way through Excel sheets, and [feeding] information into the app. We initially decided to only keep it limited to Delhi-NCR, where we lived – it was mainly for family and friends,” Roy said.
The app, called CovRelief, went online on April 23. It garnered over eight million hits that week.
The CovRelief app is a simple interface that offers a lot of important information. It tracks in real-time the availability of hospital beds, lists oxygen suppliers, shares videos from doctors and has an updated list of state helpline numbers. It also has a ‘city stress meter’ that provides an indication of how stressed a city’s healthcare infrastructure is. Of late, it has also been sharing a list of people or outlets that prepare meals for COVID-19 patients isolating at home.
All the information is collected from two sources and updated by the hour. The sources are, one, official government websites, and two, a pair of crowdsourced networks that provide authenticated real-time information: CoronaSafe Network and Covid Fight Club. The data pertains to 32 cities, including Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Dehradun and Jaipur, and its makers are working to add more.
Since coming online on April 23, the non-profit app has been accessed 23.4 million times and has helped patients and caregivers navigate the tribulations of COVID-19. “In the initial days, we had such a huge response from the public that we added a feedback button to the app,” Roy said. “Scores of people started asking us to include their own cities so we have gradually increased our [coverage]… It has been a very organic growth so far.”
The city-level information is the product of the efforts of the Covid Survivor Force, a network of 450 volunteers, and counting, who track and verify leads across cities. They joined forces with CovRelief to support the app.
“One of the main challenges that we had at first was the speed with which we had to update the information, especially in cities like Delhi, where there has been a massive increase in requests for help.” Even hourly updates weren’t good enough.
So the makers added a ‘need help’ button to redirect users to the Covid Survivor Force’s Facebook page, where they could directly post their requests.
Bhumika Shukla Tripathi, based in Singapore, is one of the members leading the Covid Survivor Force collective. She said their collaboration came together after many volunteers discussed the app on their page.
“We were completely unprepared for the second wave, and in a matter of days the number of requests on our page had started to soar,” Tripathi said. “We did not have an app and we found CovRelief to be very efficient at organising the data.” CovRelief in turn needed volunteers on the ground. “Things fit and we made a good team,” she added.
The app’s rapid growth also caught the attention of tech giants Microsoft and Google. Google responded by putting together a group of 50 volunteers to help monitor real-time data and offered its Cloud Platform to host CovRelief.
Microsoft too extended its support, although thus far the team has kept things on hold. “A lot of other private investors have also reached out to us right now, but we have so far not accepted anything – there hasn’t been any need as such since everything is voluntary and we have garnered a large enough team of volunteers to help with verifying the information,” Roy said.
India’s healthcare infrastructure has either collapsed in some pockets, like in New Delhi, or is on the cusp of a breakdown wherever a second wave has been in the offing, like in Bengaluru. Once the second wave got underway in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, chaos followed and ordinary citizens have borne the brunt.
Information and resources from both the Central and state governments have failed to sate demands for hospital beds and medical oxygen. So, many people – including a few government officials, like earth science ministry secretary M. Rajeevan – turned to social media for assistance. Both requests and offers for help quickly reached a din, and verified leads became a premium.
“Only 5% of the data available on online platforms is authentic,” according to Roy. “The internet is flooded with incorrect phone numbers and unverified links. People value our app because they have found leads on it that are genuine and which they can trust. Our model is to keep the information simple, transparent and authentic.”
Roy and company have been particularly overwhelmed by CovRelief’s feedback section, which has been flooded with requests to add more cities – and expressions of gratitude from users whom the app helped.
Bollywood celebrities, including Katrina Kaif, Raveena Tandon, Tisca Chopra, Puja Bhatt and Adil Hussain, and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai have tweeted about the app. Author Nilanjana Roy also said she had found hospital beds, oxygen and urgent medical help for a few people through CovRelief more easily than she could have otherwise. The vast Pan-IIT Alumni Network has also rallied behind the app.
Apart from the help from Google, Ramesh Raskar, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the PathCheck Foundation, a volunteer-led non-profit tech organisation, has offered his technical resources as well.
The inspired social mobilisation has prompted Roy and his colleagues to consider expanding CovRelief’s reach to many more districts. “In the long-run, we [would like to] take the app to the district level, where people could install it locally and it can be updated with real-time information from the district magistrate’s office,” he said.
“Hopefully, in a few weeks, the second wave curve will flatten out and people will start to recover and the health infrastructure will be less stressed,” Swapnil Sharma, another member of the team and a chemical engineer by training, said. “We have some good insights from the data and hopefully this will help us be better prepared in other cities.”
“When I woke up in the morning after we launched the app, I saw comments and requests that had streamed in all night,” Sharma, who is set to begin his PhD at the University of Houston in August this year, said. “It opened our eyes to the plight of those people. I do have a lot of satisfaction about being able to help the people in my own country right now, but more than that, I have been humbled by their pain.”
Jennifer Kishan is an independent journalist and photographer based out of Kolkata. She has been published in The Guardian, South China Morning Post, The Caravan, Reader’s Digest and other publications.