A second wave of COVID-19 has been hitting India hard. Case numbers have surged, and many hospitals have been running out of essentials including beds, oxygen cylinders, and lifesaving drugs.
While help is pouring in from governments and organizations from across the world, members of the India’s massive international diaspora have also been taking action.
Among them is Prarthana Sannamani, who left India for the United States in 2017 and now works as a software engineer at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA.
While she’s heartened that the company and its partners are mobilizing resources to help ease India’s crisis, she’s also determined to make a difference of her own by using her professional digital skills and knowhow.
Just before dawn on April 21, Sannamani launched covidresourcesindia.com – a website that carries a comprehensive list of COVID-19 resources across India.
Her inspiration are her parents who live halfway around the globe in a small town in India’s southern state of Karnataka.
“Being so far away from them at a time like this made me feel helpless,” she explains. “So I began looking for contact details of doctors, health centers and places supplying oxygen cylinders in their vicinity. I compiled them on a Word file and shared it with my parents.”
Sannamani then asked herself what else could she do to help more people like her parents, not just in her hometown but also in other places across India.
“When I was looking for COVID-19 resources online, I discovered that the information was scattered. I’m tech savvy and even I was finding it difficult to source it. Should anyone have an emergency, they wouldn’t know where to start looking.”
She came up with the idea of setting up an informational website and started focusing on finding leads for the two most-needed resources: oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. She initially concentrated her search in Bengaluru, the city in which she’d spent some of her formative years and where several of her friends and family stay.
Sannamani worked fast to build covidresourcesindia.com. It went live just six hours after she first thought it up. To get there she drew on the skills and knowledge gained from working in OneDrive and SharePoint teams at Microsoft.
“At SharePoint, we help democratize information in organizations, find ways to make it more easily discoverable. While I was building this site, I would often catch myself thinking how I would have organized this information and improved it if it were for SharePoint.”
Currently the website lists information for 17 cities and 12 states. Besides oxygen cylinders and hospital beds, the website also has leads for ambulance services, blood plasma, the anti-viral drug Remdesivir, and even meal delivery services.
Developing and growing the website posed some challenges. For instance, India is a nation of many tongues and information on several state government websites are listed in local languages, some of which Sannamani cannot understand.
“So, I turned to my friends who helped me translate,” she says.
Sannamani is also sensitive about the kind of information she’s putting out and is aware that some of it comes with a short shelf-life. “Instead of directing someone to a stray announcement of a bed or oxygen cylinder availability in a particular area, I provide links to crowdsourced dashboards or government helplines that have a broader view of available resources across a city or state,” she says.
In the short time she’s been working on the site, Sannamani has received a great deal of support from her colleagues and managers. She says, “I’m a big believer in empathy. And (Microsoft CEO) Satya Nadella’s principle of bringing more of it in what we do is what drew me to Microsoft in the first place.”
“This past year, I’ve seen first-hand how empathetic we are as an organization. When you’re part of a work culture like this, it tends to rub off on you. And you begin asking yourself how you can go beyond what you’ve done.”
After doing her day job, Sannamani returns home, fixes herself a meal and fires up her laptop. She spends hours searching for more resources and finding ways to make the site better. She usually wraps up at 1 a.m.
“The first week was tough because I had just started work on the site. In fact, on the second day I took time off work because I realized how time-sensitive this project is.”
Her co-workers, friends and seniors in India and the United States have also stepped in. Aside from sending email blasts to their teams, they’ve also shared it on their professional social media platforms. This network has been so effective in extending the site’s reach. People across the India have reported back to thank her for helping them find what they need.
Sannamani is amazed at the impact her site has created. But she says it’s nothing compared with the work healthcare workers have been doing on the pandemic’s frontlines and volunteers who are making phone calls to verify information and updating dashboards in real-time.
“It’s humbling,” she says. It also makes her aware of just how much work there is to do.
Meanwhile Sannamani is refining the site. She’s adding more features – a search bar for starters – to make the site more user-friendly and better organized.
She’s also acutely aware that even though she’s managed to cover most major cities, there are hundreds of smaller towns that are still missing from her dropdown. Including the one where her parents are right now.
“This past week, I’ve been trying to add more cities and finding ways to ensure it reaches a lot more people,” she says.
When she returns home tonight, she’ll hunch over her laptop, tapping its keyboard and searching for more.
Abhishek Mande Bhot is an independent writer and editor covering news, lifestyle, and luxury for publications in India and the US.