The distressed person on a Covid helpline or chat room pleading for an oxygen cylinder, hospital bed or Remdesivir vial is probably not aware that they are chatting with a 16-year-old... but the chances are that it is a teenager on the other end of the line or the screen. Neither would the caller imagine that because of the maturity and dedication with which many of these new Covid emergency helplines and Covid resource websites are being run by school and college students.
With 10th and 12th grade board exams being cancelled one would assume that Gen Z would be huddled in their AC comfort feverishly playing Fortnite and other games. But clearly that’s not the case for Aanya Malik from Chandigarh and her core team who run Humanity Has Hope (H3), previously known as Help Reach, a Covid emergency helpline. They range from age 15 to 19.
Aanya is the Head Of Operations, Ishan Sindwani is Head of Information Technology, Sanya Singal, Head of Design, Tara Khanna, Head Of Marketing, Vaanya Gilhotra - Head of Research, Kaira Mahajan- volunteer and Keshang Yolmo- a volunteer based in Kolkata.
Neither is it true for Prakhar Goel a 10th grader from Hill Spring International School Mumbai, who recently singlehandedly set up a website called
Covid-19helpinghands.org, which lists verified resources for Covid beds, oxygen, Remdesivir, isolation, meal services and pet boardings.
These teenagers have barely lived and here they are dealing with the grim reality of death and working night and day, taking and making sometimes 200 calls a day to procure life saving drugs and equipment for callers across India.
You are assaulted by a terrifying reality when Aanya, who started working with Help Reach now H3 after her 10th board exams in March 2020, says, “You know that India is in a grave situation when adults are calling teenagers to help them find beds and other resources”.
At the onset of lockdown, H3 kicked off its activities with a ‘stitch your own mask’ campaign. They procured fabric from vendors in Chandigarh whose sales had dropped and employed jobless tailors. ‘We raised 30 – 40k and we spent this on donating 150 PPE kits and rations to the DGP in Chandigarh’, says Aanya. Shortly after they launched a campaign to feed strays called ‘Tray the Stray’. However they say it is in the last 3 weeks that they really feel they’ve made a difference. H3 now has over 50 volunteers spanning the country, all teenagers except one 10-year-old girl from Mumbai who insists on helping out because they found an oxygen cylinder for her mother.
It’s a heavy burden to take on but these kids are very sensitive to the unfolding tragedy, which is sometimes too close to home to remain passive.
Verifying numbers and information
15-year-old Ishan from H3 Delhi who is on an early summer break from Step By Step Noida, because 80 percent of his teachers are infected, says he knew he had to act when a close relative of his passed away of covid. ‘I have a relative who passed away a few days ago. So it’s a really bad state. But today I was able to find oxygen for 4 people in the NCR region after calling 30 or 40 numbers and even punching a hole in my desk. That’s another thing we don’t know if all the numbers we are getting are fake or not. Lots of people selling fake remdesivir, etc. Aanya or Keshang will take a bunch of phone calls for requirements and they will send it on the Whatsapp group. We get various leads and we call and verify by asking if they have it available. That’s how we are operating’.
They have now become so experienced that they have gained a basic knowledge of drugs and medical terminology they never imagined they would. However they are smart enough not to offer medical advice.
'You're a lifesaver'
19-year-old H3 volunteer Keshang who studies in the Heritage Academy Kolkata get calls at 6 am. ‘I didn’t sleep yesterday because I had a patient who is 60 in Delhi who was not getting a bed. Someone told me there’s a device called Bipap, which acts as a substitute for ventilators. I gave the patient the lead and it really helped. Now his SP02 is 66-67. He’s still finding beds but at least he’s stable. I didn’t even know there’s something as Bipap and Cpap. I get 12 to 13 calls every day regarding critical patients and lose some. Yesterday I had a breakdown I lost my uncle but we still have to help other people. You can’t save every patient but if you save one and they say you’re a lifesaver – it encourages me to continue this work’.
99 percent of their requests are from Delhi, but they have helped many in Indore, Bangalore, Mumbai and even Shimla. They have even received a request for a crematorium space in Delhi – which is when it got really dark for them.
Discrepancy between demand and supply
The main challenge that is faced by H3 and other organisations doing similar work is that leads expire at lightening speed, because of the huge discrepancy between demand and supply.
‘I have 40 contacts on my phone just for oxygen. Rahul oxygen, Oxygen 1,2, 3 etc but leads expire within 30 seconds. It will stay for maximum 20 mins’, says Aanya.
This generation is super active on social media and they know how to milk twitter and Instagram to the fullest to get new leads and amplify requirements and resources. Aanya explains, ‘one advantage we have which other generations don’t is technology. If a 60-year-old man is looking for a bed for himself. He won’t have time to register himself on sites, he won’t know how to look for hashtags and autogenerate a hashtag or retweet something. People’s attitude has changed, my relatives are asking me for help. Adults are taking us seriously’.
Another enterprising teenager using technology to assist people in this spiraling crisis is 16-year-old Prakhar Goel from Mumbai. He created a slick website in one day called
www.covid-19helpinghands.org for verified covid resources. It was up and running on Saturday 24th April and received 11,000 hits in the first 48 hours.
Prakhar is not new to community work. During the first wave of Covid, he along with 4 friends started the Bombay food project to combat hunger in Mumbai resulting from lockdown. In 12 months they fed 8,000 people. Prakhar says, ‘there was a lot of misinformation being spread all around twitter, instagram etc. That’s why I thought of making this website to collate everything. We use only verified sources. Every contact we get we cross- reference it with other organisations’.
Apart from the obvious requirements of beds, 02 and remdesivir Helping Hands also provides contacts for isolation meal services and pet boarding, where in if the entire family is infected they can find someone to take care of their pets. Seeing the success of his program, Anvaya, a group of 14 university students focused on CSR has decided to collaborate with him, and now the website which was originally Maharashtra centric has expanded to include Bengaluru and Delhi.
‘Our website has a chat feature. There are no words to describe the feeling when a number of our users said that we saved lives. One of our teachers in our school reached out to us and we could help her as well to get remdesivir’, exclaims Prakhar.
It’s remarkable how these young covid warriors have managed to balance this work with school and tuitions. Prakhar spends 2 hours a day updating his website and another 4 hours chatting and replying to the messages. So far his website has in excess of 32,000 hits.
The wise 16-year-old puts the situation in perspective, ‘The government is doing the best it can. They can only help to a certain extent. There needs to be community engagement. Communicating with all these social workers it was touching. They always call back and are polite. It’s like all of India has united’.
The Millennial approach
This zeal to spring into action is not limited to Gen Z. Millennials are also working 24x7 to secure scarce resources for anguished families. 28-year-old Shashi Sargar, an IT professional, has collated all resources under the hashtag Mahacovid on Twitter along with his friends Mansi, Shantanu, Sandy, Poorva and Titiksha. They are working on expanding their reach to rural areas in Maharashtra, which is difficult as many don’t access social media.
‘We started this Maha Covid hashtag and under that we are serving the whole region. There is a huge requirement for ventilator beds. Someone in Nagar, Nashik district needed a bed. We found nothing there. Then we asked in Pune and finally arranged a bed in Aurangabad’, says Shashi. They have organised region wise teams and engage with other groups so that patients have the option to go to nearby cities. MahaCovid also wants to educate villagers on the treatment protocol incase they test positive, so that the spread is checked. ‘They are just told to go to the Zilla Parishad hospital. If a bed isn’t available there then they go back home”, says Shashi.
The CEO and young employees of a sports organisation – India On Track (IOT) – are also working round the clock to get fresh leads for 02, beds, home ICUs, Plasma, etc. They verify leads tirelessly through the night and delegate tasks efficiently. They have also saved people by finding ventilator beds and O2 in the nick of time. A majority of their requests are from Delhi NCR.
These young students and professionals are saving the day for many. It’s not just about their adeptness with technology; their heart is completely in it. It’s not a mandate from their schools or offices. Neither is it to beef up their resumes. It’s not just about instagram posts and amplifying people’s needs on social media as many celebrities have been doing. Gen Z and Millennials are relentlessly searching for resources. Their constant companion the mobile phone is now not just for gaming but has become a game changer and assumed the avatar of a savior.