As India grapples with the second wave of COVID-19, many good samaritans have been taking initiatives to help those affected by the pandemic. Be it private companies, civil society or NGOs, people have moved one step to empathise with those in need. One such initiative is the #COVIDJaankari campaign by a Bangalore-based organisation.
The campaign is a tech-led, crowd-sourced, matching platform wherein anyone could find relevant information about vendors and service providers across a host of categories amid the pandemic-led lockdowns. The idea stemmed from a need to bridge the information asymmetry prevailing in the eco-system and thus providing validated information or 'Jaankari'.
Speaking exclusively to The Logical Indian, Swati Khandelwal, Founder, Eximious Health that launched the campaign, shared her experience so far and the journey ahead. In addition, Tejaswi shared his insights on behalf of volunteers on how the campaign managed to formulate a global team of volunteers to operate on a 24x7 basis.
TLI: Before we begin, could you let us know a little bit about the initiation of the #COVIDJaankari campaign by your organization?
Swati: During the latest wave of COVID-19, my close family members tested positive, ringing alarm bells. Given the sudden surge of demand and growing sense of anxiety, supply chains took a hit and as a result, we faced hurdles to procure essentials in our native cities. Online platforms had a long waiting list & knowledge of offline stores was limited, given we live in other cities for a good while now.
Even booking doctor appointments and getting RT-PCR tests done turned challenges - as we simply didn't know of the right clinics & centres back home, especially those with limited online reach - a real challenge in Tier 2 & 3 towns & cities of India.
It is then we decided to do something about this information asymmetry, and thus #COVIDJaankari came to life - with the sole purpose of providing valid resources, information & volunteers with those in need across all pin codes of our country. A tech-led, crowd-sourced, matching platform wherein anyone could find relevant information about vendors and service providers across a host of categories.
Tejaswi: It became increasingly difficult to differentiate verified from the fake and valid from the fraudulent with a plethora of forwards jamming up all social feeds. While the intention of those sending these messages was good to a large extent, little good could be derived from this chaos. Not to forget a legion of hoarders & black marketers looking to make a quick buck. I felt self-verifying one piece of information held far more value than a hundred random forwards. With this thought, we convened a group of friends & family members to do our bit as volunteers - outside of our personal & professional commitments - to validate the information.
TLI: Considering how India is struggling with the second wave, what has been your plan of action?
Tejaswi: We decided to set up state-wise WhatsApp and Telegram groups to source localized information from those with Tier 2 & 3 presence vis-a-vis solely relying on likes of Twitter & Instagram. This was done overnight; with ~100 such groups active, the volunteer team started getting close to 500 queries per minute! They range from - how to find oxygen re-fills, contact details of tiffin services, where to get a rapid antigen test etc. A lot of questions are often repeated, and hence tough to track, even when valid information is available at our disposal.
Swati: #COVIDJaankari aims to help people find first-level information and most importantly, valid information. We are trying to map out all the service providers in the country that are verified via a crowd-sourced, tech-led platform. All this information is in the public domain - either through a simple google search or known to our kith & kin back home - we're only looking to organize it for optimal use. This is to let people have a one-stop solution. That said, categories like hospital bed availability, essential drugs availability, plasma & donors availability etc are outside our purview given these are under the government. We're only focusing on publicly available info for now.
TLI: Recently, a group of 100+ volunteers were chosen by your organization to particularly help the people in rural areas. Why is it necessary to focus on rural areas because urban isn't doing any better?
Swati: A lot of families in Tier 2 & 3 cities reached out to us asking for essential ration supplies or home-like food services - not for want of money - but because the young members were either isolated or hospitalized or no more. Even online channels are taking longer time than usual due to tremendous load. We are trying to focus on these people in need of ration and other essential daily-life services. Reading the story from a small town in Bihar on LinkedIn, you can well imagine their despair as well as our impact in such cases - at least to whatever level currently possible as per the government regulations and availability of stocks.
TLI: Lately, there have also been certain cases of misinformation and fake leads. How do you deal with this situation by effectively verifying contacts?
Tejaswi: There's a two-tiered asymmetry around us - one is the information asymmetry - including those who're unaware of the right services around them. The second is the demand/supply asymmetry, on real-time availability of supplies.
Our focus as volunteers is on the former i.e. to verify every single supplier or vendor and mark those selling at exorbitant rates as 'suspicious' on the platform. This helps others avoiding them & only going ahead with the valid set of suppliers.
Swati: We have focused upon on-boarding volunteers from the student fraternity and reached out to major campuses in India for few reasons – students are more tech-savvy & have access to all modern tools & techniques to handle data and secondly they are much more receptive to figuring out fraudulent data sources. They also have a slightly better bandwidth to support than working professionals.
#COVIDJaankari currently has volunteered in the form of students & alums from IIMB, IITD, NSIT, St. Stephen's, Miranda House, Jesus & Mary, HR College and other prominent campuses from India. Students are aligning their existing groups and helping us in filtering out the valid sources. We are also actively engaged with professors from international universities to increase our reach and have students abroad join in our initiative - to strengthen our 24x7 drive even further.
TLI: Rural areas have been more prone to infections lately and due to the unavailability of resources and health care, no one comes to their rescue. How does your team assure safety protocol and yet help the people in rural areas?
Swati: Recently, we had an online discussion with UNICEF India to highlight the success of our intervention in Tier 2 & 3 cities in Rajasthan. Medical emergencies and calamities can come in any form. Our aim is to build a central database that everyone can access in the long run as well; this is the vision of the #COVIDJaankari initiative. We've couriered supplies to affected families and our team has been following all the necessary safety protocols. We are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity; this is most important now.
TLI: Considering that most of the states are in a lockdown, how difficult does it become to transport resources?
Swati: Last month, we faced few challenges regarding the expedited movement of resources but things are improving slowly but surely across the board, so let's remain hopeful. Nevertheless, we must follow the protocols since they are necessary to bring down the number of cases in our country. We are also trying to reduce travel and have a 'last-mile-connect' system in place for the volunteers.
TLI: Lastly, do you have any message for our readers and how can one be safe?
Tejaswi: Our message is simple, "each one, help one". If you can do a little, you are doing a lot! A mere 10 minutes of time per day as a volunteer, can go a long way in helping many find valid resources around them the first time, each time.
Swati: We are urging everyone to keep a close track of symptoms & get the right medical help at the earliest. Also, requesting everyone to get vaccinated without falling for rumours around its efficacy, side-effects, brand, and other details. Let's remember that the best vaccine is the one you've taken! We urge our youth & students to take a lead in ensuring that all elderly, women, disadvantaged among others are duly vaccinated timely. Our intent is more important than our incentive.
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Also Read: 'Religious, Political Rallies Accelerated Coronavirus Transmission In India': World Health Organisation