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Covid-19 petitions rise online as Indians worry about the pandemic

As Covid-19 spreads across the country, Indian’s turn to online petitions to pressure authorities to better tackle the pandemic

Experts have been warning that India is woefully underprepared and is conducting far too few tests. Photo: Getty image
Experts have been warning that India is woefully underprepared and is conducting far too few tests. Photo: Getty image

Mumbai: As the head of a non-profit working on road safety and emergency medical care, Piyush Tewari is used to interacting with the government. But when he decided to mobilise a campaign around the need to expand Covid-19 testing, he knew that in-person lobbying would be impossible, given the restrictions imposed following the outbreak. So, in mid-March, he started an online petition asking the union health minister to “provide testing kits and preparedness instructions to all 700 district hospitals in India medical colleges and private hospitals" and “undertake, on a war-footing, the training of community health workers", among other things. Experts have been warning that India is woefully underprepared and is conducting far too few tests.

In about a week Tewari’s petition hit more than 66,000 signatures. “One of the reasons I figured online would work well is because I didn't know if I would even be able to meet people right now," said Tewari, who heads the Save Life Foundation. “You can’t take a delegation. This becomes the only way to show public support around something."

Tewari’s is one of about 1,800 petitions on, the online activism platform, on issues related to Covid-19. This is among the highest volumes the site has had on a single topic, and their "movements" page featuring the top trending Covid-19 petitions has crossed seven lakh signatures.

As cases of the disease have escalated, so have the petitions, with the surge coming in the past two weeks. “Current news trends highly resonate on and you will see a break out of campaigns when there is a huge wave of people's voices rallying behind a particular issue," says Nida Hasan, country director, India.

India has recorded over 600 cases of Covid-19 so far, and 13 deaths.

The range of petitions around Covid-19 shows the extent to which the virus has disrupted lives and raised concerns. There is the student petitioning the government to improve its quarantine centres, or the entrepreneur who wanted the massive Ram Navami gathering in Ayodhya to be cancelled (it was called off last week), the Hyderabad woman who wanted booking portals to waive flight and hotel cancellation fees.

As Indians have been asked to practice social distancing, online activism has perhaps become even more crucial to voicing opinions and rallying behind topical causes. “When people across the world are faced with tough times, the digital world has become an important social space to share, communicate, spread awareness and drive change," said Hasan. “People want to participate and help others.... In testing times such as the Covid-19 health crisis, when people are staying home, online activism is being used to amplify citizen's voices, to demand action from the government and to stand united as a community."

Some of these petitions have racked up thousands of signatures in a matter of hours. Dr Asit Khanna’s petition, for instance, which seeks better protective and medical equipment for healthcare workers, has crossed 1,85,000 signatures in a week.

“I'm in the thick of it and seeing what ails our medical system and what are the shortfalls," says Khanna, a cardiologist and activist. “Now is the best time to highlight them." His petition states in no uncertain terms, “Doctors and medical professionals are fighting a losing battle to Corona… If Corona does not wake up our lawmakers and if they don’t start revamping the healthcare set-up in India, then we are doomed."

Through Change.Org’s tech tool petitions can be sent directly to the authorities being addressed to fix the problem or formally presented in person. The greater the number of signatures, the more momentum that online campaigns gain. “The whole idea was to bring government attention to the fact that [thousands] are asking for [testing and screening] to be expanded," says Tewari.

Petitions can be declared as “victories", if the petitioner feels the goals have been achieved or a change has been made. For instance, Khanna's petition has prompted a response of support from Member of Parliament and national president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Dr Santanu Sen.

But victories may not only be calculable in a tangible sense. “One end result is creating awareness and collecting similar minded people together," says Khanna. “People blame us for being armchair activists but we are that much, you are not even that. We are doing something, mobilising people, connecting to journalists, making the public aware."

ᐧBhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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