Unhelpful helplines in times of COVID-19

Many of the helpline numbers are either out of reach or constantly busy

screenshot of govt twitter handle Representational image | #IndiaFightsCorona

On April 27, Shubham Bhatkande tweeted to the official account of the Ahmedabad collector: “We are three students, two from Belgaum in Karnataka and one from Mumbai. We are stuck at Paldi, Ahmedabad and want to go back to our homes. We have contacted the helpline no 104. They gave us the number 1070. Now, when we call the line is busy."

Shubham has been stuck at Ahmedabad ever since the lockdown began and is yearning to go home at Belgaum. Even after several attempts at reaching out to the authorities via the helpline numbers, the students, who are at present sharing a rented apartment in Ahmedabad, have got no help. Pranay Damania, a design student who shares the flat with Shubham, says though they tried to connect on the helpline numbers shared by the district authorities, none seemed to be helping. Pranay is a native of Mumbai's Vasai district.

"We first got connected on the number 104 wherein all our details were taken but towards the end of the call, after almost 20 minutes into the conversation, they redirected us to the numbers 1077 and 1070, saying that they will guide us for the transportation. Neither of these two numbers has ever worked though we tried several times. The number 1077 was constantly busy and 1070 never connected in the first place. So in effect, we are back to square one. We were also given a landline number by the operator on 104, but that number, too, never got connected." 

This journalist tried calling on 1077, the number of the district control room in Gujarat, but it was unavailable. Interestingly, a random search on the internet shows the same number designated as the emergency citizen helpline in different times--the district administration of Raipur in Chhattisgarh had used this number as its toll free helpline service to ensure timely wages of payment to workers.

As thousands of Indians, including migrant workers, pilgrims, students, tourists and others stuck due to the lockdown at different places across the country, look for options to go back home, authorities across the states and districts are actively advertising helpline numbers by which those in need can connect with them for help in navigating the process of movement from one place to the other. But to the frustration of those who are already tired of waiting to reach their destinations, many of these helpline numbers never seem to get connected and if they do, a response is hard to come by. 

Anisha Das and Dibya Singha, studying in SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, belong to Assam but currently reside in Virar-Vasai district. "We are stuck here. We contacted the helpline provided by the Assam government but we didn't get any response yet,” they said.

Also, at a time when the government is helping those stranded get back to their destinations, the helpline 1800221292 for migrant labourers in Mumbai, which has been advertised on billboards across the city and which claims to be working from 9 am to 9 pm, turned to be "unavailable" at 6 pm when this journalist tried calling.    

Not just those stranded, even the ones trying to get some help as they remain cooped up inside their homes, are unable to reach through the right authorities because the lines remain jammed. 

The number 1091 is the national women's helpline for 'women in distress', but when this journalist tried calling on the number, it said, "the number is not in use." 

"At a time when women are in a vulnerable position due to the lockdown and face the threat of domestic abuse, these helplines can come to their rescue. And at such times, nothing is more frustrating than these numbers not connecting," said a public health researcher based in Mumbai, who did not want to be identified. 

A few helplines dedicated to those suffering from the novel coronavirus are working round-the-clock though, and doctors are going out of their way to help patients. The Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) helpline number 02227567269, started on April 1 (after the municipal corporation began receiving a barrage of COVID-related calls on its other helpline, 1800222309) has six doctors on eight-hour shifts on three different lines, active from 10 am to 8 pm. 

"We are MBBS doctors from across specialities here including dentistry, psychiatry, ENT, orthopaedics, and we attend to almost 300 calls a day," says Dr Amol Sanap, dental surgeon who is a staff doctor with the NMMC. "People call to tell us their symptoms and to know if they have COVID; some people simply call to check what they should do upon coming back home from offshore so as to reduce the chances of transmitting the virus," adds Sanap. 

These tele-helplines work in a way that the experts who answer the calls transfer the information to their colleagues working on the ground who then get in touch with the caller to provide hands-on help. The NMMC has one medical officer each in every area who are a part of the Rapid Response Team, that gets in touch with the helpline callers to help and assist them in person and in real-time. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation helpline which has a new IVR 1916 for COVID-related medical guidance, ambulance requirements, hospital bed availability, and for any other emergency, is fast and accurate. However, the Maharashtra state helpline number for COVID, 020 26127394, showed "busy" for almost two hours when this journalist tried. 

On April 29, Khan Faiz Shamshad tweeted that his eight-month pregnant sister who resides alone in Pune, wanted her husband who is in Mumbai to come over. However, he was not getting the requisite travel pass as the authorities "did not consider it to be an emergency case”, said Shamshad. "The Mumbai police emergency travel desk contact number 7738518130 remains off or busy. They ask you to fill up the online form but will never inform you about the status of the form. We filled three forms so far," he said begrudgingly.