Arnab Biswas first noticed the cries for help on Instagram.
In mid-April, the 25-year-old started re-sharing stories of people looking for life-saving resources to fight COVID, like ventilators and oxygen cylinders, in his home country of India. However, being an Instagram intermediary soon became unmanageable as requests flooded in.
So he turned to Discord, a group chat service, to connect people who had essentials with those with COVID or trying to save people suffering from the disease. He found a better digital solution to an ever-growing problem as COVID cases rose precipitously during India’s deadly second COVID wave, resources dwindled, and misinformation flourished.
Now, less than two months later, the chat group called “COVID Fighters (India)” has attracted more than 12,000 members throughout the country. What started out as an attempt to save lives has evolved into a sprawling resource for people who are anxious, confused, and afraid. It’s a hub for doctors to share advice, users to check where oxygen cylinders may be available, for people to grieve losses and process their traumas, share advice about mental health, and post encouraging messages. Overall, the group’s become an online community where people who were initially strangers now have one another’s backs.
As India was in the middle of its second COVID wave — at its peak the country recorded more than 400,000 COVID cases — Biswas realized he needed to help somehow — even if via a screen. He hadn’t left his home in New Delhi, the country’s capital, for almost nine months when the pandemic started ramping up back in March 2020. He and his dad wanted to protect not only themselves but, especially, Biswas’ grandma, who lives with them.
When people express their grief in COVID Fighters (anyone can join using this invite link), they’re usually met with sympathy from other Discord users. For example, this post from a doctor in the grief-sharing channel illustrates the supportive nature of the group:
“Signed off on 3 deaths today… It was too soon for them. This is the worst time to be in healthcare. The PTSD from this is going to be real.”
“Coming off a shift here. Signed off on 3 deaths today, one being of a 20 year old with no comorbidities and the other 2 not being older than 45. It was too soon for them,” the doctor wrote, referring to the younger patient not having any other medical conditions beyond COVID. “This is the worst time to be in healthcare. The PTSD from this is going to be real. good night.”
Another user jumped on the chance to console them:
“That is horrible. We feel your pain. And I know talking about it here on discord is nothing compared to living it, but if you’d like to share more, you can. We are listening… As for PTSD, we’ll be here to tackle that too. Sending love.”
This isn’t a one-off. Frank words about grief are everywhere in the group, such as this message:
“I read somewhere recently that all of us, even the healthy ones, are constantly grieving right now. We are grieving for others, for ourselves in the future. All our lives will forever be changed by this. I just hope we can come out not so broken/repairable on the other side of this.”
And it’s not only caring words that help buoy users through their worst days during the pandemic. People drop in resources for free mental health sessions, group art therapy, and calls for a virtual reflective grief journaling session.
After starting the group, Biswas was spending around 17 hours a day exchanging messages with users and coordinating resources. Then he reached his breaking point.
“I wasn’t able to work, I had to take leave from my office,” says Biswas. “That’s when I realized, ‘OK, this needs to stop. I can’t let this affect my personal life.'” Biswas learned to better balance his life, so his work with Discord fit into it, not the other way around.
He also discovered that in an open online forum, not everyone will have the best intentions. As part of the introduction to the Discord group, he warns against scammers who had posted to the space before. He gives advice on how to avoid being scammed, such as asking for more details, checking to ensure prices are reasonable, researching someone on social media, using a smartphone app to check if given phone numbers are legit, and asking for an India-specific identification number.
Aanya Wig, Biswas’ friend, came up with the idea to verify, streamline, and update resources shared in the Discord group on a public Google Sheet.
“Someone in a situation of emergency will never have time to go through so many messages. They probably don’t have the time to text and tell you ‘this is what I need,'” says Wig.
Volunteers who update the Google Sheet work in shifts and, in all, they’re active from 10 a.m. until 4 a.m. every day. Part of that time is spent taking what Wig calls SOS calls for people who are looking for resources to save themselves and their loved ones.
Wig’s a 21-year-old college student and an aspiring human rights lawyer. But since she started helping people find COVID resources, she hasn’t had time for her school work.
“There was this one particular night, and we have a lot of these nights, where in 15 minutes we lost two or three people,” says Wig. “We didn’t have time to step back and grieve the loss…because we knew the next 15 minutes are as important as the ones that passed before.”
While Wig knows it’s not her fault when someone dies, it’s hard for her to truly accept that.
“Maybe externally, I know that it’s not my fault. I don’t own a hospital, I can’t make these resources,” says Wig. “But how do you stop?” She still feels guilty when people die that she’s tried to help.
While mental health is a taboo subject for many in India, both Wig and Biswas talk openly about it and have had therapists since before the pandemic.
“I’ve had the privilege…to be surrounded by people who’ve normalized the importance of mental health,” says Wig. “I am in the situation where I can handle this [helping people with COVID], where I know that people have breakdowns.”
The other spreadsheet coordinators have become a major support for Wig, even though she hasn’t met the majority of them in person.
“We’re so close,” says Wig. “I used to hate nights,” she adds, noting that people tend to panic at night and it’s harder to get resources after business hours. “But now I really look forward to these nights because I know that even if there’s going to be an SOS call, we’re going to work through it and we’re there for each other.”
As COVID cases drop in some Indian states (though, India’s still experiencing 4,000 deaths per day), both Biswas and Wig are looking to the future of the Discord group. A channel recently started to share information about vaccine availability, with a focus on marginalized populations in India such as domestic employees.
While the U.S. opens up as 41 percent of people older than 12 are fully vaccinated, the same can’t be said for India, with just 3 percent of the eligible population vaccinated. Biswas knows the pandemic won’t abate until vaccinations are available to all, no matter where they live.
Wig believes the legacy of COVID will leave a stain on India for years to come.
“It’s going to be a lot of grief, a lot of pain,” says Wig. “I think the post-consequences are going to be much worse than the pandemic. Things will never feel the same for India because…everyone has lost someone.”
But, while both Biswas and Wig acknowledge the heart-wrenching impacts of the second wave, they think the Discord group could continue to serve their country long after the pandemic.
“It should be used for situations like worsening effects of climate change and other calamities,” says Wig. “There will never be a time where people don’t require help.”