The requests roll in one after another like silent prayers: “Please try hard. Please, please.” “Ma’am, plz help.”
They are desperately looking for ICU beds, oxygen, medical care for COVID-stricken family and friends, and as India’s medical system is swamped by the virus, they turned to social media as a last resort—forced to plead with strangers like Pooja (2018 GATHER Fellow) for miracles.
Pooja is not a deity. She’s not even an authority figure, or a government official, but for the past two weeks she and an army of young Indian volunteers—dubbed the #COVIDSquad—have been stepping in to connect sick Indians with the resources that they urgently need.
“The government completely failed us, and now a bunch of 20-year-olds are literally saving lives,” Pooja said. “I’m convinced I live in a dystopian thriller.”
Perhaps that alternate reality would be preferable: Movies are predictable; life in a pandemic is anything but.
Since 2017, Pooja has been well known around Seeds of Peace, doling out hugs and teaching dance as a beloved counselor at Camp, participating in the GATHER Fellowship and inspiring many in the Seeds community with Letters of Love, a nonprofit she founded that connects children around the world with peers in refugee camps.
Coordinating life-or-death medical requests was never in her trajectory, but when a stranger reached out to her on Instagram for help finding an ICU bed, she used her platform to broadcast a call for help to her more than 22,000 followers.
One of those followers, a data scientist, took notice, sifted through information on Twitter and Instagram, and reached out to Pooja: “She said, ‘Hey, I cross verified this lead, and I think this would work,’” Pooja recalled.
And so was planted the idea of the #COVIDSquad, a small, organized team of volunteers who would use social media to resolve requests from friends and family of COVID patients.
With a knack for ideating, setting up, and implementing systems, Pooja sent out a call for volunteers, and quickly formed a team of eight people—all complete strangers from social media. Each person is assigned a role either coordinating requests, sifting through data to find leads, or verifying the leads.
She found that small teams worked most efficiently, so she developed a guide to help other volunteers form their own COVID Squads. To her knowledge, at least seven others have been formed based on the model, and she’s learning and perfecting the system daily as the virus continues to spread, with no relief in sight.
The strain on India’s healthcare system has translated to dire circumstances for anyone in need of oxygen, ICU beds, and essential medicines—even doctors were unable to tell patients where to receive intensive treatment. Social media became the best bet, with hospitals, private vendors, and medical supply companies often using Twitter to announce availability or to ask civic groups for help.
In one case, a prominent hospital sent an S.O.S. on Twitter, announcing that in a few hours, they would no longer have enough oxygen for 100 or so patients on ventilators. Pooja, along with many other volunteers, began a mad dash to secure oxygen tanks, a complicated and suspenseful endeavor that involved run-ins with police, engaging lawyers and local authorities, and the oxygen finally arriving at the hospital with just 30 minutes to spare. It would seem like something out of a cinematic thriller if it weren’t becoming the daily reality in highly affected cities like Bangalore and Delhi, Pooja said.
Her squad typically receives 30 to 35 requests a day, mostly from other young people assisting their family or friends. A good day involves resolving half of the requests—but really, Pooja said, “there are no good days.”
“There’s no success in any of it, we’re not solving for the problem, we’re just finding the pathway to the solution—perhaps. This is not a sustainable intervention. It is rather a war room of emergency requests—ad-hoc, chaotic and volatile. It’s a stopgap until the government establishes a centralized system and provides aid. However, I’d call it a good day when I feel the collective mental health of my team is ‘O.K’.”
The volunteers are mostly in their early 20s, either fresh out of college or having only worked corporate jobs. They haven’t worked in situations where logging off their laptops, or going to sleep for a few hours, is literally a life and death situation.
It’s an incredibly heavy burden for any person to bear, and Pooja makes no attempt to hide the anger that being in this position with her Squad brings her.
“I’ve often worked in high-stress environments out of love—because I love the job, I love the impact that I’m making, all of that, but over here, that’s not the case. Sure, I work with commitment and compassion and being very aware of the privilege and power at my disposal, but I also work with a lot of rage because I’m being made to do this, and so are these volunteers. I’m angry because I have no choice in the matter, I truly have no choice.”
The rage pushes her to keep fighting, and her actual job—with the Community Arts Network, which she helped launch on April 27—reminds her of the future that she’s fighting for: “Research shows that after a period of crisis, community arts is one thing that helps you rejuvenate and ushers you into a period of growth again. So basically, with CAN, I’m preparing myself and everyone else for a time when a new normal is here and we get to rediscover and explore our humanity.”
At some point tonight, Pooja and the volunteers will eventually turn off their phones and shut their laptops, knowing that requests will go unanswered, and that people may die because they couldn’t help them. They’ll get up and try again tomorrow, hoping to find life-saving leads, but recognizing that in most cases, the best they’ll be able to offer won’t come in the form of medical care.
“I think what we are doing, as important as providing a verified lead, is also the sense of community for that one lone friend or family member who is trying their relentless best to find help in a very broken system,” she said. “It’s, ‘Hey we’re there with you, or we will try with you. You’re not the only one calling these helplines frantically, we’re there with you.’”
Looking to help? Pooja would love to hear from Indian Seeds who want to lead their own COVID Squad! You can find her at @pooja.pradeep on Instagram. For those outside India, Pooja’s team has personally verified, vetted, and partnered with a small-scale fundraiser—Donate Oxygen India—to provide immediate and long-term solutions to the oxygen shortage crisis.