• In developing countries like India, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing socio-economic issues.
  • The State of Karnataka has built a network of 30,000 volunteers to fight the spread of the virus as well as help the most vulnerable.
  • Digital technology has been key in developing the systems necessary to manage this workforce.

In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, the southern Indian state of Karnataka - whose capital, Bengaluru, is known as the Silicon Valley of India - has brought together technology and volunteers to contain and combat the pandemic.

When our Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 24, many imagined it would be hard to enforce. To our surprise, however, it was a great success; the doubling rate of new COVID-19 cases slowed from 3.4 days to 7.5 days. However, in a densely populated country like India with about 120 million migrant labourers, according to the labour rights group Aajeevika, lockdown has had a big impact on migrant workers. From losing income to leaving for home in a rush, to facing police enforcement to no transport, these workers are facing various perils.

That is when Karnataka State - under the leadership of Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa - created various task forces, war rooms and control centres staffed with volunteers including industry leaders, doctors, IT professionals, paramedics, police officers and civil defence personnel, and with the support of the Indian Red Cross Society. This effort was steered by Captain P Manivannan, the then Secretary of Labour, Information and Public Relations for the state government.

In late March, the Government of Karnataka launched a programme called ‘Corona Warriors’, with the aim of getting volunteers from all walks of life across the state to support efforts to fight the pandemic. These volunteers have helped to build technological and medical infrastructure, offered telemedicine support from doctors, shadowed police personnel in enforcing the lockdown, as well as cooking and serving food for migrant labourers. The scheme has two core objectives – no one goes hungry, and everyone stays safe.

In fact, support was needed for far more than just coronavirus-related emergencies. Around 80% of the queries received by the Government of Karnataka on social media and through its helpline numbers - as well as a Telegram group called Sahaya that was set up with support from volunteers - are related to non-COVID-19 emergencies, such as delivering medicines to the elderly as they are housebound, securing curfew passes from the police for emergencies, bringing food and essentials to individuals under quarantine, and, last but not least, ensuring migrant labourers and informal workers have access to groceries and food when they have no job and no earnings. These ration and food requests are converted into tasks by the state's digital command centre, and are assigned to volunteer teams in the areas where the requests originate.

The control centre can monitor whether the task was completed by the volunteers or not and at the government's Department of Information & PR headquarters in Bengaluru, a video wall displays in real time how many tasks were assigned to volunteers, how many were resolved, how many have been escalated, and how many meals have been served to the needy across the state. This initiative has boosted confidence among citizens, who can see the extent to which the government has engaged with volunteers and communities, and how it has managed to repurpose locations such as temples, marriage halls, community halls, schools and colleges to cook and serve food to those in need.

The system is coordinated from a 'digital war room', which is integrated into the emergency operations centres. Here, volunteers man the network and work to support police personnel, healthcare and ambulance subsystems, the logistics network for the delivery of medicines and food, the warehouses where dry rations and groceries are packed, and dispatch systems.

New cases of COVID-19 in India as of 8 May
New cases of COVID-19 in India as of 8 May
Image: Worldometer

Fighting fake news

One of the most important challenges of a disaster or pandemic in the digital era is fake news. The control centre employs full-time personnel and dedicated volunteers to bust fake news and issue clarifications in Telegram Groups and on Twitter and WhatsApp to ensure the public does not fall prey to dangerous misinformation. Containing fake news is as critical as containment of the virus itself to ensure there is no panic created amongst the public at large, who are already distressed by job losses and lockdown.

The system also uses an integrated supply chain from monitoring food preparation at kitchens that are set up by volunteers and corporates to food delivery through volunteers to labour colonies in a 'hub and spoke' model.

Coming from a corporate background, it has been amazing for me to see how this set-up - in which the government initiated the programme and the volunteers own it - has evolved.

This is a very unique arrangement of government and the public, supported by a strong underlying digital framework that is scalable and which enables individuals to volunteer from home or field. In a first of its kind for India, we have built a massive volunteer network of over 30,000 members mapped down to the village level across the state, in case the virus spreads to the hinterlands.

And we have realized that in developing countries like India, we must do much more than contain the spread of virus; we must also combat the socio-economic issues that have arisen due to the prolonged lockdown, where the worst hit are migrant labourers who have no jobs, no earnings and are far away from home.