In the midst of another grim day in India, one that would see the country set yet another record for COVID-19 deaths and new cases, a nine-year-old girl in New Delhi was delivering small but potentially life-saving doses of good news.
“My team will contact you soon to save your mom’s life! And your Oxygen Concentrator will reach in Bihar shortly. Don’t worry now!” Licypriya Kangujam tweeted to one of her 138,000 followers just before the start of another day of online school in her pandemic-battered city. Two hours later, she promised to send another oxygen concentrator – an US$850 device that can mean the difference between life and death to a COVID-19 patient struggling to breathe – to a follower whose father was hospitalized in Goa. “You will get in few hours. Plz care him. Don’t worry now!”
Wednesday was just another day in the schoolgirl’s campaign to use her growing fame and social media clout to save as many people in her country as possible. Last month, Licypriya used her life savings – most of it award money from environmental organizations for her work raising awareness about climate change – to buy 100 oxygen concentrators, which she sent to hospitals in need.
As news spread of what she had done, her e-mail and social media accounts were flooded with what she said were “thousands” more requests for the devices. Many of those appealing to her would include photos of pulse oximeter readings showing dangerously low levels of blood oxygen.
Each photo is more evidence of how India is struggling with the second wave of the pandemic. More than 250,000 Indians have died since the start of the crisis, and on Wednesday the country announced a record 4,205 deaths and 348,421 new cases over the previous 24 hours. The real death toll is widely believed to be far higher, with bodies continuing to arrive at crematoriums faster than new funeral pyres can be built.
Licypriya is now asking Indians – as well as the country’s vast diaspora in Canada and other countries – to send her money through Ketto, an Indian crowdfunding website, so she can continue delivering equipment to hospitals. She told The Globe and Mail that she will soon have raised enough to buy another 200 oxygen concentrators.
She says the fact a nine-year-old needs to do this demonstrates how poorly the crisis has been managed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Thousands of people lost their lives … many children lost their parents, and many people lost their loved ones. I am really very sad, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even take my food. And our leaders are busy in blaming each other instead of solving the problem,” she wrote in reply to e-mailed questions from The Globe.
“I am a symbol [of] our failed system and failed leaders. I shouldn’t be doing all this. I have to read my books, I have to play with my friends and I should be in my home. This is our leaders’ responsibility. But they failed everywhere in everything. So, a nine years old kid is doing her best.”
Licypriya, who was born in Manipur, one of India’s poorest regions, before moving to New Delhi with her family, is uncommonly mature for her age – and accustomed to the spotlight. She began campaigning against climate change at the age of 6, after she accompanied her activist father to a United Nations conference on preventing natural disasters. A year later, she made headlines after staging a Greta Thunberg-inspired sit-in outside the Indian parliament to raise awareness of environmental issues.
Last year, she and Ms. Thunberg were among 21 signatories of a letter to the World Economic Forum demanding an “immediate” end to fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
But while she’s frequently compared to the now 18-year-old Ms. Thunberg, Licypriya says she doesn’t feel that’s fair. “She is my inspiration. [But] I don’t like comparing my name with her because I have my own name, my own identity and my own story. If media called me Greta of India then this is not writing my story. This is deleting a story.”
She said it’s her dream to become a “space scientist” and travel to the moon or Mars to research whether it’s possible to live there.
On April 23 – the day 25 people died in Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital due to a lack of oxygen – she decided to put her environmental activism on hold and focus on the pandemic.
Her efforts, and the fact she publicly blames Mr. Modi for the scale of India’s crisis, have made her the target of a wave of online hate. There are also frequent allegations that she is being manipulated by her parents.
She said she handles her Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts herself, though “my mom assists me when I require technical help.” And she has “a team” that filters her e-mails for her because of the volume she receives.
The online attacks, she said, began last year after she refused to be honoured by Mr. Modi, who had chosen her as one of the country’s most inspiring women. “Dear Narendra Modi ji, Please don’t celebrate me if you are not going to listen to my voice,” she tweeted.
Since then, she said, she has been subjected to threats and abuse, including warnings that “she will not be safe” if she continues her criticism of the government.
She said she tries to not let the threats bother her, though she thinks it’s worrying that people would attack a nine-year-old girl’s efforts to fight climate change and help out during a health crisis. “I have different opinions with our leaders [but] that doesn’t mean I don’t love my country,” she said.
For now, she is trying to stay focused on the task at hand. “I want the people of Canada to help me, to help my country,” she wrote. “We’re losing lives here every minute.”
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, May 13, 2021