The second wave of COVID has hit India pretty badly, and to say it’s been devastating is an understatement. If a whole year of lockdowns wasn’t damaging enough, we’re currently back to dealing with a major health crisis, statistics of which I can barely get myself to face at the moment.
It wasn’t long until the second wave quietly seeped into my family in Mumbai. I’d like to take a moment here to tell you that the magnanimity of this beast called Covid slapped me 10x worse only when it hit home. Only then did I realise how horrendous the situation really is. I’ve stayed home, I’ve masked up, I’ve been scared of falling sick—but I’ve never been this petrified of a crashing healthcare system until I found myself deep in it.
A family member got infected and critical last week, and we were trying to find her a ventilator which has been in shortage. I’ve always believed in the power of the internet, and went forth and put out a request on Twitter asking for help or contacts who could point me in the direction of a ventilator. I was put in touch with multiple contacts who helped out. In about six hours, we successfully found a ventilator.
A couple of days later, health conditions worsened and we were desperately looking for A+ blood group plasma. To get plasma, we needed to find donors (who’ve finished 28 days of recovery since testing negative) to donate blood, so we could get the plasma from the blood bank in exchange. Even with apps and networks meant for people to find plasma donors, this was an incredibly tough search.
Once again, I turned to the internet for help. This time, a few friends stepped up and got a few influential accounts to post on my behalf. Soon, my mobile phone number got passed around on some stories and some tweets. I panicked a little when I saw my number on some popular accounts, but a friend reassured me this would be the easiest and quickest way to reach me. Since I was in a state of panic and desperation where the only thing that mattered was the life of a loved one, I agreed.
That’s where I unknowingly committed a mistake that came back to traumatise me. I gave the public the benefit of doubt.
The day after I put out my emergency request, I found myself fielding three to four calls a minute. I was speaking to blood banks, coordinating with donors, figuring if they qualified at all, and a million different things for my suffering loved ones. All in all, it was draining, exhausting and demotivating. But somewhere in the middle of these calls—a lot of which were genuinely helpful—I got a call from a man who asked how I knew the person who’d posted about my SOS. “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Are you looking to donate blood?” He replied, “No, are you single?”
I was so confused that I immediately cut the call. I didn’t have the time or bandwidth to pause and reflect. A few minutes later, I got another call and I could hear two men on the other end giggling “Your DP is so nice,” one of them said. Once again, I cut the call. I continued getting calls asking where I live, whether I live alone, if I’m single, whether I’d speak to them, what my full name is. One man made kissing sounds.
I blocked all the numbers and carried on finding a plasma donor. I was in the middle of a family medical emergency, I didn’t deserve anything short of help. Definitely not harassment.
But the next morning, the situation escalated. I woke up to find a grand total of seven men video calling me at the same time. I couldn’t even hang up for a second to block these numbers before another call would come by. Five minutes into feeling horrifically flustered, I silenced my phone, kept it aside and waited. It took some time for it to stop.
I blocked the numbers and as the day progressed, the video calls stopped. I thought the nightmare had passed.
But the trauma had just migrated to another platform.
I opened my WhatsApp to check my messages and there they were: three unsolicited dick pics from strangers.
I went into deep shock, but I couldn’t immediately process it. My emotional range went from revulsion, anger and fear to hopelessness and a mix of other emotions you don’t need in such tough times even as I automatically deleted these photos to protect myself. I requested the tweets and stories that carried my number to be pulled down, because I couldn’t deal with how wildly violating this felt. Thankfully, I’d found my donor contacts by then.
My advice to women would be to never let your phone number out on a public forum. I know this blanket advice can’t work in all situations, and the onus does not lie on us to protect our inboxes and DMs from perverts. Often online commentary surrounding the act focuses on what the recipient of the offensive image should have done differently—but not on the actions of the perpetrator. And I saw this play out in my Twitter comments too, where some people kept telling me I shouldn’t have put out my number. I shut down those problematic ideas but will I ever put out my number again? Probably not.
Research says that men cyberflash for several reasons. One could be a I’ll-show-you-mine-so-you-show-me-yours mindset. Another reason is partner-hunting, which means that some men actually see their behaviour as a tool for flirtation and a genuine form of courting. That’s just sad. But I found no research explaining why a man would do this to someone literally begging for a loved one’s life or in a moment when a human being is obviously suffering. It took a while before this sank in. To realise how intrusive, disgusting and dehumanising this felt. And once it sank in, it felt heavy. Five days later, it still feels heavy.
I’d like to thank the Mumbai Police though for calling me right after seeing my tweets about this. I politely let them know that I don’t have the bandwidth to file a complaint and chase down these scoundrels in the middle of a raging, deadly pandemic.
And that’s okay with me.
For now, all I can focus on is how to help others, and get past the deep traumas that the pandemic is scorching us with.
Follow Shasvathi on Twitter.