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Young people of India fight pandemic with applications and oxygen

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Mumbai (AFP)

Her exam review is done, student Swadha Prasad continues with her real work: finding life-saving oxygen, medicines and hospital beds for Covid-19 patients as India goes through a brutal second wave of infections.

As their government tries to tackle the pandemic, young Indians have intervened in breaches, setting up apps to help resources, distributing key supplies, and using social media to direct resources to people in need.

Prasad works with dozens of volunteers – all between the ages of 14 and 19 – as part of the UNCUT youth-led organization, building online databases filled with information about medical resources available across the country.

It’s a 24/7 operation, with teens constantly on their phones while verifying the availability of supplies, updating real-time information and field calls from furious relatives.

“Some of us make shifts from midnight in the morning because the calls don’t stop at 3 in the morning,” said Prasad, 17, who works a 14-hour extension from just before noon to one in the morning.

It is a long and often tedious issue, said the Mumbai-based student, but added: “If I can help save a life, there is no part of me that means no.”

And lives were saved, she said, pointing to a case where the team was able to provide oxygen to a new Covid-19 patient in the middle of the night after a two-hour agonizing wait.

“It’s not just about securing resources … sometimes people just need to know they’re not alone,” she said.

– ‘The Oxygen Man’ –

With two-thirds of its 1.3 billion people under the age of 35, India is an overwhelmingly majority country, but its youth has never been called upon to bear such great responsibilities.

As India’s pandemic has grown increasingly dystopian – with crematoria running out of space and patients, including a former ambassador, dying in hospital parking lots – many have volunteered in groups.

In Mumbai slums, Shanawaz Shaikh has provided free oxygen to thousands of people.

Popularly known as the “oxygen man,” the 32-year-old sold his beloved SUV last June to fund the initiative after his friend’s pregnant cousin died in a rickshaw while trying to be admitted to a hospital.

“She died because she could not get oxygen in time,” he told AFP.

He never expected to make so many requests almost a year later.

“We got about 40 calls a day last year, now it’s more than 500,” he said.

The Shaik team of 20 volunteers is also struggling with a massive shortage, made worse by the beneficiaries.

“It’s a test of someone’s faith,” he said, describing how he sometimes travels tens of kilometers (miles) to supply oxygen to desperate patients.

“But when I’m able to help someone, I feel like crying.”

– Overloaded volunteers –

As large cities carry the burden so far, technology constraints are becoming apparent as the virus enters smaller towns and villages, software engineer Umang Galaiya told AFP.

Urgent demands for supplies and spare hospital beds have promoted a flood of leads on Twitter – highly unconfirmed.

Galaiya responded by building an app to make it easier for users to find what they were looking for and, most importantly, limit their search to only verified sources.

But even so, his app is unlikely to help people outside major cities, the 25-year-old said, citing the example of his hometown in the heavily hit state of Gujarat, where internet use is low.

“If I look for resources in Jamnagar, there is nothing on Twitter,” he said.

Ultimately the pandemic could not be defeated without government, he added, describing simple measures that could have saved many lives.

For example, officials could have created a real-time online registry, automatically updating beds, to save grieving patients trying to run from one packed facility to another.

“If we can do it for cinemas, to avoid excessive bookings, why can’t we do it for hospitals?” he asked.

The youth-led efforts were also unsustainable, said the Bangalore-based technology worker, noting that overloaded volunteers would likely run out of energy themselves as the virus destroys their cities.

The trauma of coping with illness and death every day has already begun to appear.

“We work hard, but we can not save them all,” said teenager Mumbai Prasad, her voice trembling as she recalled trying to help an 80-year-old woman who died.

Although they take vacations and arrange Zoom movie watching sessions to try and release, the stress never completely disappears.

“My parents are worried about this,” she said.

“But when their friends need help, they also turn to me.”

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