Covid-19 Heroes: Meet the youngsters who set up 200+ voluntary taskforce
In The Divine Comedy, Dante Allegri had quipped that the deepest rungs in hell were reserved for those who remained neutral in times of moral turpitude. By extension, perhaps the brightest rooms of heaven are reserved for those who put their best foot forward at the same time.
Even as the second wave of COVID-19 landed a devastating blow on our healthcare services, citizen movements sprung up across the country to help those in need. Among them was a group of youngsters that came together to set up a 200+ volunteer task force called ‘Volunteers.Covihelp’. And as India clocked upward of four lakh COVID-19 cases a day during the second wave, they worked day and night to help people find resources. Instead of playing the guitar, editing Wikipedia entries, or preparing for boards or entrance exams, these youngsters – many of whom were high school or college students – spent their time helping thousands of patients find hospital beds, oxygen and other resources.
How it started
A few students were helping Covid-19 patients on their own when they realised the need to scale up. Arnav Praneet and the initial set of admins created a document with medical guidelines and a form that they spread in their social media circles. They broke down the day into multiple 2-hour shifts and by 27th April 2021, they were fully operational.
The original team of 'Volunteers.Covihelp' consisted of Arnav Praneet, Sudipto Ghosh, Mudit Aggarwal, Debodhwani Mishra, Debaditya Halder, Ayaan Khan, Jaiditya Jha, Aditya Agarwal, Ipsita Choudhury, Aditya Gandhi, Vishwam Srivastava, Shivam Solanki, Prakhar Bhargava, Avi Sehgal and Harbhajansingh Pujari.
As the days passed, their team gradually grew to include several hundred volunteers.
Social media for a cause
The initiative began on Instagram where the team reached 15,000 accounts in two days during the peak. At that time, they were handling over 20 critical cases per day. However, realising that not everyone was on Instagram or Facebook, the team branched out by setting up a WhatsApp-based helpline, a website (which was initially a volunteers-only interface) and a database of resources which they verified in real-time.
Running any initiative takes effort and it was initially a challenge to handle more than 200 individuals and set up a streamlined workflow. The team divided their pool of volunteers into triads with each shift having at least one responder, researcher and a verifier.
“Responders talked to the attendants through our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter) and asked for important details regarding the patients. This information was filled into a form by the responders, who sent the details to our patient database, where the researchers and verifiers could access it,” the team explained.
Researchers would then find leads, using reliable websites and resources, before sending the details to the resource database. The leads were then taken up by the verifiers and categorised based on availability. “It took a while to get used to the workflow, and for the first two weeks, admins would have to supervise shifts and chip in when the volunteers needed help,” they said.
As with every operation, the team also had to contend with technical challenges. To coordinate and run things smoothly, they used a Discord server and a database system on Airtable. Another problem they faced was from fraudsters – people who wanted to sell fake items or take an advanced payment before disappearing. In order to deal with the latter, the team integrated a tool into their database that would scour the internet to figure out if a lead was legitimate.
Dealing with grief
The team also worked on raising funds, conducting a fundraiser MUN and successfully raising ₹24,000. Of this, ₹10,000 was donated to a 5-year-old cancer patient in an expedited manner and test to the Utishtha Foundation, an organisation working on-ground in rural villages in India.
The volunteers are also looking to conduct another round of funding which will include workshops and merchandise to raise funds. “We are planning to conduct another Covihelp MUN, some workshops and sell merchandise which can help us raise funds for many important causes,” they said.
The case that stood out
Every endeavour has a particular challenge that defines them. For the team, it was a critical patient at Akshardham Covid Care Centre (in Delhi’s Commonwealth Games Village) who had been denied admission. When they realised that the patient wasn’t being admitted they used their ingenuity to find a lead on the go and redirect the patient’s ambulance towards GTB Hospital. These complex cases, the team noted, came in now and then and put pressure on the whole team.
“A lost summer”
Lenin once said that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks where decades happen. At the peak of the pandemic, with no beds available in any metropolitan city and a massive resource crunch, the young members of Volunteers.Covihelp found themselves working frantically to accommodate those in need of aid. Needless to say, the summer of 2021 will always live on in their memories.
As Jaiditya Jha puts it: “On the surface of it, this felt like a lost summer. Some of us had our boards cancelled and nobody really had a fun season. Not to say that we didn't make some great friends and contribute to an important cause. Personally, I wouldn't remember this time as fun or exciting by any means, but it helped me mature and deal with compromises. The compromises we made in the last two months were nothing compared to what our country was going through and working with Covihelp was a rather fulfilling journey. Doing this gave us a sense of purpose. We were finally able to do something meaningful for India."
While nobody would call this a fun experience, Jha dubs it a necessary one, given the situation. Most people in the team, he opined, would simply be glad that they were able to help out one way or the other.