For a fleeting moment this week, it appeared that things were back to normal. Politics dominated the front pages of newspapers, knocking off both Covid-19 and the conflict with China. The Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot imbroglio in Rajasthan and the mystifying responses from the “high command” of the Congress became the main talking points.
For journalists covering politics, this must have come as something of a relief after months when there was barely any political news of the kind all Indians love: intrigue, speculation, accusations, counter-accusations.
But as, when and how this particular political natak resolves itself, there are many other stories waiting to be told, of equal if not greater importance.
Four months into the lockdown, editors and media houses are constantly challenged to find new angles to a crisis that appears to have no finishing date. Just when you think a city or a state has done well to handle the pandemic, new cases appear, as in Bengaluru for example. Even Kerala, a model state in every way, has seen a resurgence of cases.
So, how do we report without getting trapped in a maze of numbers that in the end mean little to ordinary readers. For them, the enormity of this crisis lies in the loss of wages, in the inability to access healthcare in time, in the fear that pervades all aspects of life, in the impunity that the crisis has given those tasked with enforcing the rules such as the police, and in the desperation of not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
Often, it is the deep dive, the micro-level reporting that resonates with readers as it reflects their own dilemmas and crises. It reminds us of what this pandemic is doing to the lives of those who struggled to survive even at the best of times.
Here, one must commend the Indian Express for its decision to facilitate in-depth reporting from one district of Bihar, Bhagalpur, for a month. Its correspondent, Dipankar Ghose, has been filing stories that illustrate well the significance of this kind of on-the-ground reporting now, or at any time.
Ghose filed story on July 6 from the Musahari tola of Badbilla village in Bhagalpur. The district has some of the worst social indicators, such as child stunting. The story from the Mahadalit section of the village, the most marginalised, spoke of the impact of the closure of schools and anganwadis on already malnourished children. The cooked mid-day meal was the only assured source of nutrition for these children. Now it had stopped. As a result, the children had no option but to join their families in begging and collecting waste.
The significance of the story is that it illustrates what is probably happening in scores of such villages across India. We read about schools and anganwadis being shut. But the consequence is this, children who are forced to beg, or eat rice and salt with a spot of dal sometimes. The long-term consequences of this on children who are already chronically malnourished can well be imagined.
The Bihar government, surprisingly, noted the story and acted. Surprising because one would imagine that at a time when television dominates, a story in print, and that too in a paper that does not have the largest circulation, could be easily ignored by the authorities. More likely, the response was prompted by the fact that the state election is due later this year.
Whatever the reason, according to , on July 10 officials were sent to the village with dry rations for the children and a promise of an amount to be sent directly to the bank accounts of their parents.
The story has clearly not ended here. Whether the grain provided – eight kg of rice for 80 days – will last that long when the whole family is hungry, and whether this will be a proper substitute for the cooked meals they had been receiving remains debatable. But when a story can prod the official machinery to act, it is reassuring for many journalists who sometimes feel they are shooting arrows into a void.
Another illustration of stories that make a mark is one in Mid Day, a newspaper based in Mumbai that has done some excellent local reporting. It’s about a family that cremated a man they were given to believe was their father by a municipal hospital in Thane, only to find out three days later that their father was still alive and in ICU. The mix-up was brought to light by the family of the cremated man who were desperately looking for him in the hospital.
The to this heartbreaking story was an expose on the shockingly poor to non-existent record keeping by the hospital. In the end, the Thane Municipal Corporation had to crack down and sack four nurses and transfer the doctors who were in charge.
While this kind of micro-reporting is needed at all times, not only during times of crisis, there are also serious lacunae in the big picture of the pandemic that remain to be addressed. In fact, the Thane story gives us some inkling of this. If, at the hospital level, there is such a casual approach to keeping records, how can we know the real extent of the damage done by the pandemic?
Journalists who have focused on data have questioned the many discrepancies in the figures put out by various government agencies. In places like Mumbai, which has the highest incidence of Covid-19 of any city in India, the lack of accurate data is constantly highlighted by newspaper reports.
If there is such poor record keeping in hospitals as to result in the wrong body being handed over to a family, do we really have accurate data on Covid deaths? For that matter, what about those who do not make it to hospital and succumb to the virus? Do such deaths figure in the official data?
Furthermore, and this has been frequently pointed out, do we really know the true extent of the spread of the infection in the absence of wider testing? Despite the constant reiteration by people in authority that there is no "community transmission", do we really know who is affected most by the virus in terms of class, or location, for instance?
The latter, in particular, is important because the answer to that will reveal how our health systems work or do not work for certain sections. It will also establish more clearly the impact of poverty – more specifically, the poor quality of housing and sanitation – on the spread of the disease. We can guess that these are factors, but we do not have the data to back that conclusion yet in India.
In the United States, journalists from the New York Times sued the Centre for Disease Control for detailed data on coronavirus infection and mortality under the Freedom of Information Act. They got detailed data by county that factored in race and ethnicity. As a result, they were able to confirm what was until then just an impression.
In an interactive article titled ", they point out: "Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in a widespread manner that spans the country, throughout hundreds of counties in urban, suburban and rural areas, and across all age groups."
One of the reasons for this, the story points out, is poverty and overcrowding as well as lack of access to healthcare.
Given the imperfect nature of data available in India, it is unlikely that these kinds of classifications have been made. But if they were, even on a smaller scale in a city like Mumbai, for instance, we would probably see something of a pattern in both infection and mortality that links to urban poverty and the absence of basic services.
This is something the media needs to pursue because Covid-19 is exposing the fractures that already exist in our society.
Independent media is on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, telling stories that need to be told and asking questions that need answers. Support independent journalists by paying to keep news free. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.