As India continues to deal with a vicious COVID-19 outbreak, some social media influencers have been accused of charging a fee to help spread requests for treatment, prompting allegations of exploitation in a country already grappling with unequal access to health services.
Social media shoutouts have been a lifeline in India’s brutal second wave, which has killed close to 250,000 people and infected 25 million since the pandemic started. Calls on different platforms have helped connect patients with oxygen supplies, hospital beds, and antibody-rich plasma from the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients - also known as convalescent plasma therapy.
The World Health Organization does not endorse the therapy outside clinical trials yet. The Indian Council for Medical Research is also expected to issue an advisory against plasma therapy soon, based on research showing that it has been largely ineffective in preventing COVID-19 deaths. However, it is used widely in hospitals and clinics across South Asia, with patients often acquiring the plasma though an unregulated informal market.
Now critics claim the Indian Influencer Network, an agency that manages over 15,000 influencers, is taking advantage of the health crisis by accepting payment for connecting plasma donors with COVID-19 patients.
Under the plan, according to the news site Medianama, influencers share plasma requests to their thousands of followers using data collected from a number of companies, who “sponsor” the influencers and pay per post. The payment can be higher depending on the size of the person’s following on social media.
Experts have criticised the arrangement and called it unethical.
But the influencer network has defended it, according to reports, arguing that their members also deserve to get paid for their work, especially as many lost income in the COVID-19 crisis. It also has said a part of the fee would be donated to a non-profit that is helping plasma donors and those in need.
The Indian Influencer Network did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE World News.