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India Covid crisis: Students help desperate patients find hospital beds, oxygen

Tamanna Sajeed/Bangalore
Filed on May 2, 2021
Photo: Reuters

Epicenter, a student-run organisation with volunteers as young as 13, uses social media to help those in need.


Students in Bangalore, India — a Covid warzone which saw over 1,800 succumb to the virus last month alone — have found an innovative solution to aid desperate relatives trying to save their loved ones.

Founded by 19-year-old Aryan Ghosh, Epicenter first began as a student-run news organisation in 2020, but now serves as a critical lifeline for those putting out calls for help on Twitter, as the city faces an acute shortage of hospital beds and critical supplies.

“Over the last few days we’ve been operating, we’ve managed to reach about 25,000 different people,” says Ghosh, adding that their team has helped several people in critical condition find hospital beds, ventilators, plasma, Remdesivir and oxygen tanks.

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The company’s innovative Twitter web-scrapers and WhatsApp AI bots were initially developed to spot breaking news and verify information on social media — but were quickly adapted by developer Daksh Soni to find requests for Covid-related help.

“Not only does it shortlist all the tweets, it also cross-references it with the number of retweets and replies to get a basic idea of how legitimate the tweet might be,” says the 19-year-old computer science major, explaining the innovative system that helps them filter the most critical cries for help on social media.

The online verification process brings roughly 25 tweets a day to the team of 35 verified student volunteers as young as 13, who call every private and government hospital providing Covid assistance in Bangalore every four hours for live updates on the availability of beds in the city.

Volunteers are also able to send automated WhatsApp messages, which Soni set up using a Python script, to vendors of oxygen and other critical care supplies to notify them of a patient’s contact information. Relatives of Covid patients are then contacted with solid leads for their loved ones’ care.

“More often than not, it happens that while we’re searching for beds, patients pass away because of a lack of immediate care,” says 20-year-old Denzel Joyson, a volunteer co-ordinator at Epicenter.

According to Joyson, the company’s young volunteers never really get desensitised to the life-or-death calls they receive on a daily basis.

“It messes with you, the amount of times you’re going to hear that someone’s passed away,” he says, explaining that volunteers, including himself, are often on edge until they can confirm that patients have either gotten the help they need or passed away.

“I’m pretty sure it is going to be something we’re going to have to talk about in therapy eventually, but for now you sort of need to prioritise what you’re doing.”

However, Joyson emphasises the joy volunteers feel when they are able to help someone, with one of the best things they hear on the phone being hospitals saying they have beds available.

“It’s even nicer when you call up a patient afterwards; you get to hear them say ‘thank you, we’re on our way to the hospital’,” he said.

Epicenter plans to start a donation drive to reimburse the costs of oxygen for those who cannot afford it by eliminating the middlemen.

According to Ghosh, this will be achieved through partnerships with various vendors to cross-reference invoice numbers and collaborating with government-run hospitals to meet requirements. "By avoiding the middlemen, we aspire to prevent any misuse of funds and delays in the funds being accessible."

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Epicenter also aims to spread its operations to other Covid-affected cities by inspiring their contacts to mobilise and follow their example in Bangalore.

“If it takes every single member from every single school in Bangalore, we will come together and fight this problem.” says Ghosh.

Interested parties in the UAE can volunteer at the organisation here (www.epicenternews.net/contact-us) or donate at https://milaap.org/fundraisers/support-covid-patients-71.





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