The International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad has harnessed the power of social media to build a virtual war room to help the Covid-impacted.
It was the peak of the second Covid wave in India. Sriharsha Karamchati, an entrepreneur and a former teacher and student of the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad (IIT-H), felt a growing sense of worry and helplessness seeing the flood of messages on social media requesting help.
The second wave of the pandemic had hit swift and hard. India’s healthcare system was close to a collapse and medical supplies were sparse. People needed oxygen cylinders, medicines, and hospital beds. Turned away at their local hospitals, they turned to social media for a solution.
Sriharsha thought about how he could help. Surely there had to be something more effective than just forwarding messages. The most recent message he had received was from a daughter who had already lost her mother to Covid-19 and needed Rs 1.5 lakh a day for her critically ill father.
He made a social media post of his own. “Donate Rs 350 that you would spend on a Swiggy meal,” it said. The message touched chords and donations started pouring in by the next morning. “She could save her father for one more day,” said the follow-up post. “By the second day, we had Rs 6 lakh. Though her father couldn’t make it, her words of gratitude struck a chord,” said Sriharsha.
However, he was amazed by the reach and impact of social media, and with that, he had the next brainwave – to form a team of volunteers to help those in need. “I started with reaching out to close friends and put a request for volunteers on the IIIT-H Life Facebook page. The next day I had 250 volunteers,” he said. These 250 members converted the forum into “a high-tech platform overnight, creating slack groups, building slack bots and automating several processes,” according to a press statement.
Today the team has over 500 members.
And that’s the story of the birth of the Covid War Room (CWR).
What’s a war room?
The term ‘war room’ was used during WW1 and WW2 to refer to rooms located at military headquarters to discuss war strategies and tactics. In modern times, the term has been borrowed for use by companies and project management terms to discuss the implementation of projects and marketing strategies.
CWR, albeit a virtual room, hosts volunteers who work together to help patients of Covid-19 and their families. The team comprises IIITH alumni, IT professionals, professionals from other fields, university students and as well as doctors, engineers, NGO chiefs, hospital owners and IAS officers. CWR was one among the many war rooms that sprung up across India during the Covid crisis.
The aim of starting the covid war room was to save at least one life, says Sriharsha. Today, the team has addressed and resolved nearly 1,200 requests and processed financial aid worth over Rs 40 lakh. It has helped over 1000 people during the second Covid wave. “Our basic purpose has been to take the mental load off the patient’s attendant while we provide remote assistance and hand-holding till the problem is resolved,” Sriharsha said in a press statement.
How are messages for help processed?
The team processes requests for hospital beds, blood, medicines, and ventilators through crowd-sourced data and finances. “We take the request, calm the assistant down and ask them to spend time with the patient. “After receiving the request, we verify the details, adjust the bed, ambulance or oxygen and organize our funding if the person is unable to pay, according to need,” Sriharsha explained.
The team members are divided into sub-groups that cater to specific requirements. There are also dedicated teams for requests, resources, and verification. “The war room has a team of doctors for remote consultation, a pharmacy college students team, hospital owners as well as IAS and IPS officers who are our final line of defence when all else fails,” says Apoorva Srivastava, a second-year IIIT-H student and CWR member, who put together a call centre to process requests.
The call centre processes patient requests not just from Hyderabad, but from cities across India, including Bhopal, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Bangalore. The team verifies information through a data bank managed by Mohit Jain, IIT-H alumni and Sudhir Yarram, a PhD scholar. The team also has a Data Studio that provides information on where the funds are going.
Sriharsha’s brainwaves did not stop there. He came up with a way to raise funds for Covid patients through a website named #Donate&Discuss. Sriharsha, the cofounder of Questbook, a knowledge-sharing app for professionals, offered to make an advertisement for a business if it donated Rs 50,000 for any Covid cause.
The initiative has raised funds amounting to over Rs 60 lakh up until now. Sriharsha has shied away from calling CWR an organization. “I want it to be represented as 500 normal people coming together with a high intent to help. I want to help random people as a habit more than anything — just 30 minutes a day, any kind of help to random people, without any expectation — that’s the vision,” he said.
Though the rate of infections in India has begun slowing down, CWR still gets calls for help. However, the numbers have drastically reduced. “We have had just six covid requests in the last 15 days, Sriharsha told Number13.
“During the second wave, there was a huge gap between resources and demand. That couldn’t be fixed overnight. The chaos has now calmed down,” he explained. CWR is currently in the process of registering 20,000 people from the Turkayamjal municipality in Telangana for vaccines through Shine NGO.
And while India is in the midst of a national vaccine drive, fears about a third Covid wave are rampant among people. Asked if CWR is prepared, Sriharsha says he wants to be able to take it on the fly. “We have curated our lessons learnt from the second wave. We are more prepared now.”