With over 200,000 cases of COVID-19 being registered in India per day, the country is grappling with a shortage of hospital beds, medicines, vaccines and even ambulances. Amidst this chaos, people have turned to social media to find help for their loved ones who have contracted the virus and are fighting for space in an overburdened healthcare system.
One of them is Shasvathi Siva, a 29-year-old writer and entrepreneur from Mumbai. Seven members of Siva’s family, scattered across India, have been diagnosed with COVID-19. For the last few days, she has been trying to arrange plasma and medication for them through Instagram and Twitter. Given the urgency of the situation, she added her cell number to her posts for people to reach out.
Earlier this week, she received a call from an unknown number.
After initial small talk, the caller started mentioning Siva’s looks and demanded photographs of her. Frustrated, she hung up only to receive incessant messages from him. She blocked him. As her post started getting shared with more people and circulated through WhatsApp groups, she began fielding a flurry of calls and messages from strange men.
“My family is looking for plasma and a hospital bed for my relatives. I have to answer all the calls because I don’t know which one will be a genuine lead,” Siva told Re:Set.
Yesterday, she woke up to a barrage of messages from more men. Some included pictures of their genitals. Some also tried video calling her. “It’s heartbreaking that even in the middle of a medical emergency men misuse women’s phone numbers,” Siva said.
Siva is not alone here. Last week when I was trying to arrange some medication for my father who is presently hospitalized with COVID-19, I faced a similar situation. As my post started gaining traction, a few men began messaging me, demanding “friendship.”
Fortunately, I was spared the WhatsApp messages but Siva asked her friends who shared her posts to take it down and reshare it without her number. She asked them instead to link it to her social media, where it would be easier to block and report lewd messages.
When you report someone on WhatsApp, “it receives the most recent messages sent to you by them and can take action to ban the user from the platform,” Jo O’Reilly, a digital privacy expert, told Re:Set. The user can be an individual or a group. Women who plan on contacting law enforcement should take screenshots of the offending messages before deleting them or reporting the sender, she said. The screenshots will act as legal evidence and a cyber crime complaint can be reported through the Indian government’s online portal.
For women dealing with the physical and mental toll of being caregivers to those with COVID-19 and scrambling for even basic resources, the unwanted messages amidst a time like this further compounds the stress they are going through.
“I don’t have the bandwidth to take legal action at this point,” Siva said. The fact that there are multiple people harassing her only makes it harder for her to file complaints. “I’m sorry to myself that I can’t take rightful action against these men, but right now my priorities are bigger.”