“I wanted to help people but now I am scared of posting COVID leads. I don’t want to land up in jail like Disha Ravi or other activists for doing nothing wrong,” a volunteer working for COVID relief online told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.
A sudden fear has gripped online COVID relief groups who have been sharing information on hospital beds, oxygen and medicines for those in need, as the second wave spirals out of control in India.
Some announced on social media that they would be limiting the posts they share, some have stopped posting altogether, while at least five big relief initiatives have taken down their websites.
Telegram/WhatsApp/Discord groups that had been up until now providing information on bed and oxygen, plasma availability have disbanded, online trackers for COVID resources deleted, posts taken down hurriedly, and some of pages are currently either shadow banned or suspended temporarily.
Volunteers Fill in the Gaps in The System
It is no news that we are witnessing the collapse of the country’s healthcare system after the spike in COVID cases in the second wave. Even after one year of the pandemic, there was no sign of preparedness from the states to handle the surge.
An acute shortage of supply of oxygen and medicines, the dearth of hospital beds and plasma, led people to turn to social media for help to be able to save the lives of their loved ones. All major social media platforms were flooded with SOS messages from families of COVID patients, desperate to find leads for COVID resources.
And it is in such a time of crisis, that the young adults of the country stepped up and took the responsibility of helping fellow citizens. People across social media started using their influence by sharing and amplifying these SOS messages, finding leads and curating relevant COVID-19 resources for those in need.
Information regarding the availability of oxygen, beds, medicines, etc across different cities was being posted on public forums for ease of access.
Within 3-4 days, several groups were formed on Telegram/WhatsApp/Discord etc with 500-600 volunteers to create a database of suppliers and all kind of COVID-related resources. The job of the volunteer included verifying the leads of suppliers and listing availability of beds, oxygen, ICU, plasma, etc.
But what made these good samaritans withdraw from their initiatives?
The Quint spoke to some of these people who worked round-the-clock to save the lives of people and provide help as the health infrastructure collapsed under the massive surge in cases.
(Allegations were raised by these people, of which some were verified by The Quint. They've opted to stay anonymous citing security reasons.)
"“In his speech, PM Modi assigned this task of helping people during the second wave on India’s ‘bal mitras’. And when we took charge, we are being threatened by Delhi Police and asked to take down the work we have done from past 10 days or so which has probably saved so many lives.”" - volunteer on condition of anonymity
An admin of one of the volunteer groups which were verifying and providing people with resources told The Quint that they got a call one day. The person on the other end of the line who identified as the Delhi Police asked them to take down their website and all the information they had put up online regarding COVID relief.
But why would the Delhi police want to do that?
The admin was told it’s illegal to share the numbers of suppliers, and that their list contains information about those who are hoarding and blackmarketing supplies of the medicines and oxygen.
The police officer on call further asked the admin to come to the police station.
"“I told them that I will shut everything down. The call made me so anxious that I deleted everything. Then I called them back to inform about it, after which they said there’s no need for me to come to the police station.”"
Another volunteer who got a similar call allegedly from the Delhi Police was told that sharing patients’ information on multiple platforms among large groups of people is against cyber policies – it’s illegal under the IT Act.
What Does the Law Say?
However, as per the law, sharing personal details of a person with the consent of the individual in question is not illegal so long as consent can be proven.
It is not a criminal offence under the IT Act if an individual shares details of someone publicly if they have volunteered to be part of a crowdsourced effort where information is being shared/amplified with the intent to help. Sharing of contact details of commercial entities is also similarly not illegal, as there is consent to share this. If any person's personal contact details have been shared without consent, then yes, this could be a problem.
Sharing a message or a social media post that reads ‘amplify’ or ‘please spread the word’ is not illegal under the IT Act, unless it can be shown that the person knows the message is fake or that they were intending to spread panic, as against sharing needed information.
Contrary to what the volunteers have been told, it is not illegal to share COVID-related relief work. Social media posts cannot be taken down or censored under Disaster Management Act.
Under section 54 of the National Disaster Authority Act, it is a criminal offence to spread a false alarm or warning which results in panic.
But for this to apply, again, the social media post in question would need to contain some actual false information. If a post causes panic BUT is accurate, then this provision doesn't apply.
If there has been an attempt to verify a particular post and it has been shared in good faith, then again, it is difficult to see how a person can be held criminally liable.
With the increase in demand, the black marketing of COVID-related materials has certainly increased. Many suppliers are taking advantage of someone’s misery as people are ready to pay any amount to save the life of their family member/members.
Hence, the stage of verification has become very crucial at this point for people sharing these leads. Going beyond just checking the availability of resource has become important. Checking the price and nature of service before sharing the lead publicly is a safe practice.
“See, we knew that distribution of Remdesivir is under the state government, volunteers were instructed to not share numbers of any private distributors. And, these SOS messages from people clearly demand to be amplified. Volunteers are getting as many as 200 messages on daily basis, requesting leads for oxygen, hospital beds, etc.,” a volunteer told The Quint.
"“I’m being told that you will be arrested for black marketing when all that you’ve been trying to do is get leads for people who are desperately trying to save the lives of their loved ones. Regular citizens stepped up and took all this work because the authorities failed, why hound us?’”"
Delhi Police Denies Allegations
Word spread quickly that Delhi Police was allegedly intimidating volunteers and attempting to censor COVID-19 relief work.
Activist Saket Gokhale quickly filed an RTI under Sec 7(1) with Delhi Police demanding an answer and explanation after he was approached by many volunteers regarding the calls they had received.
The very next day Delhi Police tweeted denying all the allegations, calling it misinformation, and adding that it doesn't prevent good samaritans from doing their bit.
Who is Really Behind The Crackdown?
In line with the claims made by the Delhi police, a volunteer was told by an activist that this looks like the work of the notorious IT cell of the BJP.
Some of the reasons for this indication are that none of the callers identifying as Delhi Police revealed their names, in some cases the name of the police station was not revealed either.
"“These calls were mainly made to girl volunteers. Attempts were made to login to the Instagram page of one of the volunteers as well. All this looks like a way to intimidate us. Shutting down groups, scaring people will curb the amplification of the reality on ground.”" - Volunteer of online COVID relief work
The Quint verified a call made to a volunteer by someone claiming that he is calling from the Delhi Police department. He tried to confirm the address of the volunteer and on being asked the reason for the call, the caller said that he wanted some “information regarding oxygen cylinders.”
The contact details of the caller were traced back to the account of a ‘Pradeep Dabar’ on Twitter.
According to activist Saket Gokhale’s tweet, this man confirmed to be a policeman but couldn’t name his SHO, duty officer or even his posting details.
Despite this intimidation, not all volunteers have backed off entirely. Currently, some of them are working towards a decentralised way of doing the relief work.
While some are diligently going back to their work, being more vigilant with verifying and sharing practices, some are keeping a low profile, taking a break from the relief work as they are still unsure of the situation.
(With legal inputs from Vakasha Sachdev)
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