COVID-19 volunteers claim intimidation by cops; BJP’s IT cell suspected

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While the country is going through a major crisis after being hit by the second wave of COVID-19, states have been experiencing shortage of COVID essentials and supplies in hospitals and medical stores. In order to share the load and help people get quick information and access to the maximum resources possible, many volunteers from across the country have been posting necessary information on the essential supplies like oxygen cylinders, medicines, injections, hospitals, plasma donors etc. to help patients and their families.

Many WhatsApp groups, Twitter handles and even Instagram profiles have been constantly sharing information on various resources in different states. However, in the last few days, a sudden fear has gripped online COVID-19 relief groups which have been sharing information on hospital beds, oxygen and medicines for those in need, as the second wave has surged beyond imagination in India.

Some announced on social media that they would be limiting the posts they share, some have stopped posting altogether, while at least five big relief initiatives have taken down their websites. The reason, according to some, is alleged police intimidation. Some volunteers have been reportedly asked to take their information down.

The Quint spoke to some of these people who worked round-the-clock to save the lives of people and provide help as the health infrastructure collapsed under the massive surge in cases. They then found out that many of these volunteers have been receiving phone from people claiming to be from the Delhi police and asked them to take down their website and all the information they had put up online regarding COVID relief.

The admin was told it’s illegal to share the numbers of suppliers, and that their list contains information about those who are hoarding and black marketing supplies of the medicines and oxygen. However, as per the law, sharing personal details of a person with the consent of the individual in question is not illegal so long as consent can be proven.

It is not a criminal offence under the IT Act if an individual shares details of someone publicly if they have volunteered to be part of a crowd-sourced effort where information is being shared/amplified with the intent to help.

Activist Saket Gokhale quickly filed an RTI under Sec 7(1) with Delhi Police demanding an answer and explanation after he was approached by many volunteers regarding the calls they had received.

The very next day Delhi Police tweeted denying all the allegations, calling it misinformation, and adding that it doesn’t prevent good Samaritans from doing their bit.

In line with the claims made by the Delhi police, a volunteer was told by an activist that this looks like the work of the notorious IT cell of the BJP. Some of the reasons for this indication are that none of the callers identifying as Delhi Police revealed their names, and in some cases the name of the police station was not revealed either.

The Delhi Police said that it takes strong objection to such “motivated, unverified and unsubstantiated allegations”, and stated that it never asked volunteers to stop amplifying resource information. The police from the capital also added that its personnel have also been on their toes helping with oxygen supply and other essentials amid the COVID-19 crisis and that such misinformation campaign will not “deter them from continuing” to do the good work.

Despite this intimidation, not all volunteers have backed off entirely. Currently, some of them are working towards a decentralised way of doing the relief work. While some are diligently going back to their work, being more vigilant with verifying and sharing practices, some are keeping a low profile, taking a break from the relief work as they are still unsure of the situation.

On Saturday, the government of India also asked Twitter to remove “false, malicious and misleading” tweets regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it came under heavy criticism, as some of the tweets, including two by opposition parties, were actually just criticism against the BJP-led Centre’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.