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Diaspora turns Covid warriors for Indians back home

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on May 13, 2021
A health worker brings an oxygen cylinder on a wheelchair at the BKC jumbo field hospital in Mumbai. — AP

Call it long-distance nationalism or an emotional pull of the homeland, diaspora communities from the Indian sub-continent have been leveraging social media for relief efforts during the crisis "back home"


It has now become a familiar way of seeking emergency help, not calling the usual phone numbers for ambulance and medical support — but using social media. ‘A’ tweets details of Covid patient B in New Delhi, who is desperate for oxygen or hospital bed; C retweets it, and, in many cases as help arrives, ‘A’ thanks everyone and deletes the original tweet. The only difference in accessing such help from previous times is that ‘A’ is in Guwahati, ‘C’ is in Manchester and they may not always know ‘B’, or each other. Across continents, online Covid warriors have been trying to make the vital difference between life and death for countless patients at a time when India’s health system has been overwhelmed.

Anguished by footage, reports, data and images of the devastation wrought by the virus, diaspora communities have been using social media extensively to try to help at various levels: from coordinating aid for friends and families back home, to raising funds in their countries of residence, organising vital equipment and dispatching it on special flights, to putting pressure on governments to do more. Their anxiety is marked by the paradox and some guilt of being fully vaccinated and living in slowly reopening economies in the west, but seeing brethren back home struggling. Online discussions have become sites of worry and despair; there is also anger and fury at the ways in which public health authorities in India have managed the crisis.

If the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99 was widely dubbed as the ‘first Internet war’, when much information and insights were available online, beyond mainstream news outlets, Covid-19 is likely to assume a similar reference point in academic research. The use of social media in the Indian sub-continent during the pandemic is of particular interest, partly because of major challenges in the mainstream news media, but mainly due to the large penetration of the Internet: covering over 35 per cent of the population in India and nearly 20 per cent in Pakistan. In percentage terms, much ground is yet to be covered, but given the huge population numbers, there has been an exponential growth in connectivity and cohesion with major implications for integration in one of the most diverse areas in the world.

Alternative accounts of bearing witness increasingly set the public agenda, at times forcing the anodyne mainstream news discourse to take note. Diaspora communities are organised on social media not only along country lines; they also string together friends, families, regions, identities, politics, cultures and sub-cultures, reflecting a growing level of what sociologist Manuel Castells calls ‘network society’. Major events and issues in the sub-continent often resonate in the UK, such as the issues related to farm and citizenship laws or the status of Jammu and Kashmir, with protests and petitions organised through social media groups involving diaspora members based across continents.

Paris-based independent journalist Noopur Tiwari has coordinated help for several people in India through Twitter: “Twitterverse works like a huge search engine,” she says. “Frequently, people working together are almost complete strangers but the communication flows well and everyone is mindful of the situation. Often, interventions lead to nothing being found since looking for ICU beds is like looking for a needle in a haystack right now. It’s heartbreaking and feels like a personal loss to the entire set of people who try to amplify, call, connect etc. It doesn’t matter that I am in Paris: a person in Delhi looking for a lead for a patient in Delhi will also either provide support online or on the phone. Although I wish people didn’t have to do this and that the Indian government had not abandoned people with such apathy, I do feel the way social media has been used has reinforced my belief in the strength of digital communities. Digital spaces find and bring support and are also places for catharsis, for collective grieving.”

A bridge between two countries

The Covid crisis has resonated in the diaspora in various countries, but perhaps more so in the UK, which has long engaged with the Indian sub-continent at many levels. Here, the pandemic has adversely affected the diaspora — called in diplomatic discourse as the ‘living bridge’ between the two countries — twice over: first, several studies have concluded that members of Indian and other Asian communities have been disproportionately hit by the virus, with a large number of deaths and livelihoods lost, besides other challenges — the dead have included doctors, nurses and health professionals who trained in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; second, the communities have been anguished by calls from family and friends back home, as reports and images shared instantly on social media reveal the continuing cull of lives inside and outside hospitals, crematoriums and public spaces such as rivers and roads.

Much medical relief equipment has been on way from the UK and other countries to India. It may well amount to a drop in the ocean, given the scale of the challenge in India, but a large number of people have been involved in organising aid through social media across the UK, including Asian celebrities such as actors Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal and Nitin Ganatra and cricketer Isa Guha. Launching the Oxygen for India Appeal for the British Asian Trust, Prince Charles said: “Like many others, I have a great love for India and have enjoyed many wonderful visits to the country… As India has helped others, so now must we help India.... Together, we will win this battle. In the United Kingdom, I know that the British Asian community is playing a vital role in response to this crisis. Whether in the NHS (National Health Service) or as key workers in other roles, or through the wonderful work done by volunteers and local initiatives in temples, mosques and gurdwaras to support all members of all communities. I wanted to lend my support to the launch of an emergency appeal to help those who are suffering most across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.”

Several flights have taken off from Heathrow and Belfast to India, loaded with equipment such as ventilators, oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders, and oxygen manufacturing plants, organised and coordinated on social media and other modes from broadly four sources: the UK government and industry organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); charity organisations such as Oxfam, Islamic Relief UK, Christian Aid, Women’s India Association of the UK and ActionAid; equipment organised following online crowd-funding appeals; and donations by individuals. The equipment is dispatched in close coordination with the Indian high commission, which arranges logistics and clearances at the India end. Members of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin have been using social media to conduct ‘virtual ward rounds’ and interact with colleagues in Indian hospitals, while organisations with large existing networks in the UK and India such as the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir and Akshay Patra Foundation have intensified relief efforts.

Karan Bilimoria, who as CBI president is leading industry relief efforts, says: “The UK and India share a close bond based on our enduring ties and ongoing close cooperation. The global challenge of the pandemic must be tackled on a united front. The CBI is the UK’s largest business organisation, speaking for 190,000 businesses, including almost 200 of the leading trade associations, employing 7 million people. It has been inspiring how our member businesses and trade associations have immediately come forward to help with the awful and tragic crisis in India, in such a huge manner and in such a variety of ways.” Companies joining the effort include industrial and medical gases major BOC, Gilead Sciences, Peak Scientific, and trade bodies such as the Association of British HealthTech Industries, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the British Compressed Gases Association.

A connectivity made stronger with social media

The pandemic has reinforced split lives of migrants, making the duality inherent in everyday lives contingent and immediate due to live coverage on television from back home as well as instant messaging through social media. Kavita Datta, senior academic at Queen Mary University of London, who is involved in a research project titled Connecting During Covid: Practices of care, Remittance Sending and Digitisation Among UK Migrant Communities, says: “Social media plays a very significant role in diaspora-homeland interactions. Our research is highlighting how critical platforms such as WhatsApp and other social media are in keeping in constant touch with family and friends. From a personal perspective, following the second wave in India, Twitter was awash with people asking for information on where they might donate, and crowd funding websites like JustGiving helped to facilitate fund raising efforts. Zoom has facilitated transnational participation in death rituals and prayers.”

The ongoing research by Datta and her team has revealed several insights about the close connectivity between the Indian diaspora and homeland. They encountered a diverse Indian community in London and Glasgow — or as a participant in a workshop put it: ‘many small Indias’ — where dominant narratives of success coexist with significant experiences of deprivation. Most vulnerable during the pandemic are those on low wages, those with unsettled immigration status, elders and international students, they found. One student in London interviewed by the team reported sharing his dwelling with 26 other people — four to five people per room — to keep rents low, while community organisations highlighted their dependence on food banks.

The scale of the Covid crisis in India has prompted major relief efforts at various levels, but the devastation has been less severe elsewhere in the sub-continent, which is also reflected in lesser number of appeals and drives to raise funds and organise equipment in the diaspora communities. The UK government is supporting the equitable rollout of vaccines in Pakistan through the international alliance Covax and has provided an additional £4.67 million through the World Health Organisation to support Pakistan’s Covid-19 Preparedness and Response Plan. There is also ready availability of funds through the practice of zakat (charity giving) and the work of several charity organisations such as the Edhi Foundation.

Says noted British Pakistani actor Alyy Khan, who has lived in India and acted in Bollywood and Hollywood productions: “The kind of fund-raising drives in the Indian community is not required for Pakistan. The situation is not as dire as in India. Secondly, in our case, giving to charity happens throughout the year, not only during crises such as the Covid pandemic. There are 24/7 charities, operating throughout the year, and when needed the state also uses such funds. When I was 16, my mother told me that two and a half per cent of every cheque I earn should go to charity. Giving to charity is a way of life for us. This also ensures that no one goes hungry, there are soup kitchens run by many organisations.” Currently in Karachi, Khan says he is anguished like many Pakistanis over the crisis in India, and regrets the insensitive visual portrayal of deaths and dire situations faced by millions, and partisan ways in which the recent Kumbh Mela and the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi in March 2020 have been viewed.

Zuffar Haq, a Leicester-based businessman honoured with the royal title of MBE for his work in the charity sector, adds: “People from the community have always donated, but more donations have been made during lockdowns to help people not only in Pakistan but also in India and across the globe. Many people and NGOs have sent equipment and funds to support specific hospitals in Pakistan. During a recent radio show, people in Leicester in a short time raised half a million pounds. The UK is now relatively safe, but many people across the globe are struggling.”

(Prasun is a London-based journalist.)





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