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Why the internet makes it difficult to get over trauma

One year after the second covid-19 wave fanned across the country, volunteers and victims still struggle to come to terms with loss

Covid changed the way people perceive and consume the internet more permanently
Covid changed the way people perceive and consume the internet more permanently (iStockphoto)

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On 25 April 2021, Ajay Koli made a plea on Twitter, asking for help arranging an oxygen cylinder for his mother. She had tested positive for covid, her oxygen level was well below the ideal 95%), and she was in-home quarantine in Southwest Delhi. Koli, head of the school of information & data science at Nalanda Academy in Wardha, Maharashtra, had just lost his father to the virus the previous day. “I don’t want to lose my mom now,” he wrote. 

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Thousands of internet users amplified his request by retweeting and quote-tweeting it, helping him find a cylinder in time. It took a month for his mother to show signs of recovery. Despite a few highly insensitive comments--the bane of the internet--most people who reached out to him expressed concern. Koli’s viral tweet, and everything that ensued, encapsulates what the internet was like around this time last year. Social media was rife with stories of the kindness of strangers, the helplessness of the masses, and the apathy of a few. The internet inadvertently became a key witness to the deaths, devastation and desperation caused by the second wave of covid in the country, touted as the “worst human tragedy since the Partition of India” by a Centre for Global Development report released in July 2021. In some cases, it also changed the way people perceive and consume the internet more permanently.

All through April and May, last year, thousands of people took to the internet to find resources like oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, plasma, and medication drugs like Remdesivir and Tocilizumab that are prescribed for emergency use. Many celebrities, content creators and influencers amplified these covid-related emergency requests.

Some set up NGOs and pan-India volunteer teams to mobilise resources, verify leads and provide valuable contacts to the people in need. “In the last week of April 2021, we received an average of 50,000 SOS queries every day,” says Nitesh Singh, founder of a volunteer-driven initiative called Team SOS India, who joined social media only to undertake these volunteering activities.

In those two months, many first-time social media users, like Singh, came up, as did the reality-check that platforms like Twitter are still the preserve of the elite, and many who needed help with covid-related resources did not know of its existence. In areas like Kashmir, which had been in a lockdown much before the pandemic, internet connectivity on most days was so poor that bank transfers for a lot of covid-related relief work would get halted, says Fatima Zohra Khan, a Mumbai-based lawyer who, via the NGO, she started in 2020 to help people affected by the pandemic, also helped people in Kashmir. There were also “people (who) created Twitter accounts just so influencers could tag them in their SOS tweet while sharing it with their audience, thus making it easier for the person-in-need to track replies and call the right number for help,”says Aanchal Agrawal (@awwwnchal), a content creator with over 350,000 followers across Instagram and Twitter who helped people find medical and financial resources during that period.

Shambhavi S, a class 12 student from Lucknow who enrolled with Yuvaa, a youth media, research and impact organisation, to lead its covid-related voluntary initiative for Uttar Pradesh, recalls that she even noticed that 16-to-18-year-old women in my online circle removed their pictures from Instagram and made their accounts public so they could also amplify SOS posts.

While volunteers saved hundreds of people, lakhs of people died, too. “I was scrolling through posts from last year, and every other SOS post has someone replying the patient didn’t make it,” says Singh. Now, many of them are reliving the trauma of that period because of a phenomenon called “anniversary reactions”. Getting tagged along with multiple other people in response to a tweet makes many people anxious. It reminds them of waking up to a flurry of SOS tweets in their Twitter notifications.

Agrawal believes “a lot of us have suppressed those memories”. In these circumstances, it is a natural response, says Lakshmi Sreenivasan, a queer-affirmative trauma-focused therapist from Mumbai. “As an organism, we want to survive, and one way to do that is by shutting memories down,” she says. “We are socially conditioned and incentivised to move on.”

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However, grieving, or moving on, is also not a linear process with five stages, as Soham Chatterjee realized after losing his mother to covid in May last year. Last year, someone tweeted about Chatterjee singing “Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi” on a video call to his mother in the covid ICU ward as she breathed her last. The tweet went viral and became one of the many heartbreaking memories of that period. “When I claimed that story to be ours,” says Chatterjee, a copywriter from Kolkata, “the internet gave me a lot of attention”. People wanted him to write more about how he felt. What felt like catharsis soon got exhausting as he felt the pressure to post regularly for others. Chatterjee went off social media for a few months “to grieve in the physical world”.

Moving on is hard for volunteers, too, as they haven’t had closure. Most people they helped never got back to them amid the chaos, so they don’t know if the patient survived or not. “Out of 100 patients, three would write back,” recalls Shambhavi. Collective trauma cannot be navigated at an individual level, says Sreenivasan. She suggests shifting the perspective from collective trauma to collective resilience as one way of moving on. At a personal level, though, Sreenivasan is still holding on instead of letting go. “I still haven’t left a few SOS groups. There’s a looming fear that all of it may happen again,” she admits.

A version of this story appeared in the Mint newsletter on 1 May.

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