Clubbed together for comfort during COVID-19, here’s the rise of ‘unlabelled virtual wards’ on social media

Clubbed together for comfort during COVID-19, here’s the rise of ‘unlabelled virtual wards’ on social media
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Audio drop-in apps like Clubhouse and Spotify Greenroom are seeing spontaneous rooms of COVID-positive people, helping each other through quarantine virtually

A cough. A sniffle. A bit of Prateek Kuhad can be heard in the background, amid an ongoing conversation about the new season of Rick and Morty. This is the scene in an unlabelled Clubhouse Room for people currently fighting COVID-19 and seeking virtual comfort.

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A week after Priyanka Gantala* tested positive for Coronavirus in the third week of July, she felt her spirits dampen with umpteen incoming texts and calls enquiring about her symptoms, medication, her pain and other depressing topics.

“While I understood my friends and colleagues are worried, I wanted to interact for a bit with people who could bring in some lighthearted banter but also know what it is like to be emotionally isolated,” she says over the phone from her home in Mumbai.

So Priyanka and a friend of hers in Bengaluru, who also tested positive, got on a call. They enjoyed it so much, it lasted for four hours. “We had a bet (laughs), if we mention the words ‘COVID’ or ‘Corona’ or something along those lines, we had to do a dare assigned by the other person. But it never came to that; we were just happy to talk about anything else,” says Priyanka.

A couple of days later, she was browsing the app Clubhouse, and saw how sessions of meditation and ambient noises offered a lot of comfort to many unconnected strangers around the world. She wanted to do the same, at least at a smaller scale.

Read More | Community-led online radio meets live-streaming across Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces

So on Sunday, July 25, Priyanka kicked off a random room assigned to no Club and invited a few people she knew had tested positive recently. “It started with just four people,” she recalls, “I had a few former college-mates living in Italy, Canada and Australia join. We talked about pop culture, travel plans and our childhoods. One person, a budding musician in Cape Town, played us their mixtape. Another then suggested a sing-along and realised it was a bad idea, given all our voices were terrible (laughs) from being ill.”

In two hours, the group had gained 50-odd more people who were also ill. “Some had colds, not even COVID. But the concept still applied,” she says. “And we also had people present who were in good health but offered support by treating it like a regular room.”

Remarkably, the group had a more powerful impact when nothing was said at all. Maybe there was a cough or two, in the Room of then-70 people, but the silence was a special, comforting balm. “Some silences lasted for two to three hours,” she recalls, “and we welcomed that.”

It is worth noting other similar platforms have started such group sessions. Some groups on Spotify’s Greenroom have opened up spaces where COVID-positive people in isolation can listen to new bands or enjoy ambient noises. Facebook Rooms, has also been a popular space for these pop-up spaces, but they tend to be more organised and kept within known circles. And for many, Twitter Spaces still feels too public.

Anonymity for intimacy

Did Priyanka consider making this a permanent Club with members? She responds, “My friends and I thought long and hard about this, but we wanted this to be a random set of Rooms because people are wary of their Clubhouse data showing that they’re part of a Room for COVID-positive people. Plus, when people see a COVID type of Club on the app, it is assumed medical advice will be given and we do not do that. You don’t need a calendar invite, just a link which would have been shared through WhatsApp or other private message means, rather than social media.”

“I am definitely not the first to do this,” she insists, adding she has since seen — thanks to her evolved Clubhouse algorithm — a few other unlabelled Rooms. And when she dropped in, she realised they were similar to the one she created.

This was hardly a surprise. She says, “The loneliness during this time wreaks havoc on mental health. Sometimes, a stranger on the Internet can actually solve your problem! Clearly, especially during quarantine, media is still social.

*name changed to protect identity



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