The COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented effects on freedom of movement. Thousands, if not millions, of people worldwide now find themselves stuck indefinitely in locations they do not consider home. A good number of them are running low on critical medications, struggling financially, and many of those who should be able to work remotely are unable to do so due lack of equipment, timezone differences, or insufficient internet access.
According to the U.S. Department of State, roughly 50,000 Americans worldwide are currently seeking to return to the United States but cannot because of flight cancellations and border closures. The situation has strained U.S. repatriation protocols, but social media has increasingly served as a means by which these stranded citizens can form communities, answer one another’s questions, collectively request government assistance, and share financial, logistical, and emotional support while they wait. Having been personally involved these past three weeks in efforts to repatriate 5,000 Americans from Peru, I can attest to the invaluable role of citizen coordination across social media. Despite being a general social media skeptic, I can also say that such collective mobilization should be encouraged in order to bring people home sooner and more smoothly, and to provide support in the interim wait.
I got wrapped into the #stuckinperu odyssey trying to help my father and his partner find a way home. Early in the morning on Mar. 16, I started receiving frantic messages from them telling me that at midnight Peru would close its borders and begin a two-week lockdown. By the time they reached the airport in Cusco, Peru, it was already blockaded by the Peruvian military; all remaining commercial flights were either preemptively canceled by airlines or overbooked by the thousands already in the airport. My father and his partner were stuck until the airspace was reopened to commercial flights or until the U.S. government began repatriation flights.
I registered them in the State Department’s Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP) and called everyone I knew who might be able to help, but I knew I had to do more, so I turned to social media. A quick Twitter search turned up a few others similarly stranded, so I contacted them and started making a spreadsheet registry of names and contact information. By nightfall that first day, I naively estimated there were a couple hundred Americans stuck in Peru.
By the night of Mar. 17, I no longer had to seek people out to add them to the spreadsheet. They were finding me across Facebook, Twitter, and even my email (I’m still not sure how some people got that) to ask for the link to the registry, which was growing so rapidly that I could not keep up. I added instructions at the top of the spreadsheet, so that anyone who saw it or joined it would know to register with STEP, and give their info to the State Department’s American Citizen Services (ACS) team and the Peruvian Tourism Bureau’s iPeru information service. I figured that way, if anyone wasn’t regularly checking the instructions on the embassy website, they would still be accounted for.
Within a few days, I met others who were equally as motivated to harness the group’s potential. Before I knew it, a group of seven strangers coalesced into admins. Together, we coordinated Twitter outreach (including formulating our signature #stuckinperu hashtag), moderated WhatsApp and Telegram chat rooms, created a Reddit page, managed a Facebook group of 5,000+ members, and translated the Peruvian president’s daily lockdown speeches. Ultimately, the seven of us worked to create a central hub of reliable and accurate information to counter wild rumors and the underlying current of panic that reared its head when there were developments like a two-week extension of the lockdown or the delay of repatriation flights. Later, us admins even began helping to coordinate local travel logistics to make sure no one was left behind when the embassy sent buses to smaller regional cities.
For all that the admins did, the group members were equally, if not more, instrumental. When one person’s child was having seizures and couldn’t reach the embassy, a medical professional in the group was able to advise them and help them find analogous medication at a local pharmacy. Every day as the lockdown curfew approached, group members would warn one another in the WhatsApp and Telegram group chats. When the Peruvian Ministry of Health came to one American’s hotel to test for COVID-19, others in the group were able to offer live Spanish-language translation. As the weeks passed and people got desperate it was the kindness and optimism of others that kept them from losing hope.
None of this would have been possible without a colossal collective effort fueled by the interconnected social-media world. In my case, one daughter’s effort to get her dad home from Peru would probably have remained as such. Instead, social media made it that much easier for everyone to step up and pitch in. As a group, 5,000 people have helped themselves, their fellow citizens, and the U.S. government make the repatriation process smoother and swifter. As I watch Americans continue to be or get stranded in countries around the world, I wholeheartedly urge them to replicate and improve upon the #stuckinperu process. Beyond that, I’d like to see some creative solutions as to how we can include those who are less likely to use social media and how we can synergize these citizens’ initiatives more seamlessly with the efforts of the State Department and the U.S. government at large.