Four months of loss & grief: The post-Corona world of journalists
Shambhavi Thakur
Opinion

Four months of loss & grief: The post-Corona world of journalists

As the media business unravels, amid retrenchments and salary cuts, a journalist of 20 years recounts the four months of lockdown as reporters wrestle deep personal struggles against a backdrop of devastation

By Kavitha Iyer

Published on :

Mid-June this year, I was reading about the launch of the Columbia Journalism Review’s The Journalism Crisis Project when the phone rang. It was almost midnight and Radhika Jaiswal was inconsolable. Her days-old baby boy was not feeding, and he wore a listless pallor. Worked up by neighbours’ concern into a hot mess of foreboding and desperation, Radhika called the only person she knew in Mumbai who was not fighting job loss, impoverishment, hunger, and desolation.

I had met a heavily pregnant Radhika the previous week. She was reed-thin and hopeful of delivering a boy this time. She had been on her first-ever visit to Mumbai with her two daughters and preparing to return home to a village in Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh when the lockdown was imposed. Her husband Sunil lost wages and work, like almost everyone else in Mumbai’s slum colonies.

Wary of a ride home on a crush-packed truck towards the end of her second trimester and never having heard back after registering for a ride on a Shramik train, Radhika stayed back in a tiny room at the end of a mucky lane in one of Dharavi’s poorest quarters. When I met her, she was afraid of big city hospitals full of Covid-19 patients, and uncertain if a bed would be available when she went into labour.

The bone-tired 26-year-old had eaten frugally since April. Days later, a city philanthropist read my report on pregnant and lactating women in Mumbai being unable to access state aid for supplementary nutrition. She offered to provide grocery kits with high nutritive value to the 15 women I had met in Dharavi and the slums dotting the western suburbs of still-sultry Mumbai. I spoke to Radhika, who had just delivered her baby, to connect Sunil with the team that would deliver the care package. Until the jute sack of groceries arrived, she fought anxiety every night, certain that her precious baby would not make it alive until morning.

When I hung up that night after promising to connect her to a paediatrician if the baby continued to look jaundiced, I felt the familiar terror brought on by my professional explorations of strangers’ grief. Only this time, as it had been since April, I was unable to sleep.

Journalism was in crisis, retrenchments of fellow journalists had begun as anticipated, top media theory practitioners across the world were studying broken business models of news channels, newspapers, and websites. They were asking probing questions about rescue funding, new ownership patterns, and about the fundamental issues of whether we are worth saving at all. All central questions to my life, but far removed from the everyday reality of crises that journalists have faced since the start of the lockdown.

Through these months, women recounted to me tales of violence during longer-than-ever hours locked down with their abusers. Over four months, the accounts of middle-class folk accepting the indignity of grocery packages handed over as charity multiplied. I met tribal women walking home to villages in Palghar from the shuttered brick kilns of Bhiwandi and Kasa-Charoti, 50 to 100 km away from their homes, with only a few hundred rupees in wages.

Zila Parishad school teacher, Anant Raut, in Thane district told me in the last days of March that this money would run out by the end of April. Around the end of May, I spent a day trying to locate Devka Dokphode who I’d met in March as she walked home from a kiln. It was frustrating, and eventually proved futile. I was angry at myself for having failed to take her husband Ramesh’s phone number — follow-ups are a rule I am fastidious about and the magnitude of the turbulence I’d been witnessing was making me ineffective. I spent more sleepless nights feeling vexed.

I visited anganwadis that had closed down, suspending hot cooked meals for beneficiary infants and pregnant or lactating mothers. Incredibly, anganwadi workers were carrying groceries to beneficiary homes instead, sometimes walking kilometres with a few kilograms of weight balanced on their heads. But with whole families sharing, these barely lasted more than a few days. Nobody had enough to eat well. I heard of the extreme destitution in some hamlets of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG), but many didn’t want to entertain outsiders, especially risk-bearing journalists from Mumbai. Barricaded entryways into villages, the warmest communities now studying me from a wary distance—this was now a recurring challenge.

I’m no newbie to drawing lines between the personal and professional, and I thought I had perfected a system of attempting to connect people in need who we meet as journalists to the correct resources. Without wading into their lives ourselves, remaining a tiny bit aloof while being approachable and attentive, we can report somewhat objectively. But this has been onerous in recent months. Aid-givers including specialist doctors, senior citizens, good samaritans, professionals with compromised immunity or pre-existent morbidities are under lockdown. Especially in April and May, willing and able social workers found it difficult to get transportation and permissions to reach those who needed them.

And then there were the spot decisions to make over deeply troubling questions. When you’re being driven in an air-conditioned car and you stop to take photographs of sun-burnt migrant families walking expressionlessly on the highways, do you offer a ride? At least to children? Till the next town, perhaps? Who decides who gets a ride? I began to formulate my own silly rules, and offered rides if I was driving my own vehicle. I began to carry extra bottles of water, and they would all run out. Once, near Pen in Raigad, a woman with two daughters and a younger girl perched on her husband’s shoulders offered to pour the water into her own empty bottle so that I’d have an unsullied empty bottle to take back. Wracked with guilt, I couldn’t speak for hours. She worked as a domestic help in a Mumbai suburb, and it was apparent that the madams wouldn’t take her back for many months. She was walking from Nallasopara to Ratnagiri.

A journalist friend shared a pocket cartoon, a car bearing press stickers bidding goodbye to a bewildered couple with a child standing by a highway: ‘Have a safe journey, thank you for the story,’ the journalist in the car chimed. It was cruel. It was true.

Unlike many, the work lives of journalists have continued to be busy, and they are now posited against this relentless backdrop of bizarre and unprecedented devastation. Little wonder then that since March, I’ve heard of more colleagues seeking out therapists. As the retrenchments began, many worked harder even as personal struggles deepened.

Reporters and photo-journalists who have an immunity-compromised loved one at home have begun to place themselves at risk; it is now a matter of proving your worth every day even if you’ve had a long and productive stint with the organisation. Those advised to take a short break to recoup their energies feel certain that asking for leave at this point is akin to inviting a sack order. Editors appear to be unaware of the deeper struggles of team-members, and they also wilfully do not address this risk-taking trend.

One dear journalist friend who worked every day through the lockdown told me he wished it would remain day forever, the nights bring on untold anxieties. A friend who was struggling a little bit a few months ago is now in the midst of a significant mental health challenge. More than once, I heard colleagues and fellow journalists use the following words in talking about themselves or their current circumstances: burn-out, emotional fatigue, severe stress, inability to focus, brain freeze, antidepressants, substances as sleeping aids, dramatic hair fall, a kind of inertia.

Doubtless, journalism is in crisis. Nobody in the field remains untouched now by the rapid unravelling of the media business—not the journalism college students who’ve arrived on a scene of carnage, not the mid-level staff who seem to be bearing the brunt of the shakedown, and not the top editors who have themselves taken large salary cuts or have foregone remuneration entirely for varying periods. Also, there is evidence that further, deeper pay cuts will also not do the trick.

The post-Covid rebuilding of the economy will be slow, and involve continuing hazards for company bottom lines. This is the backdrop of the current bloodbath in the industry. It’s silly to see the cutbacks in media companies as a knee-jerk reaction, a slashing of the next month’s salary bill. In fact, companies are preparing for more lasting changes to business models, attempting to build new revenue streams, new news-gathering models, and re-assessing editions and overall costs for the next two years.

I’ve long maintained that a little Teflon coating is a good thing for the hearts of journalists, so many things bounce off smoothly. But those losing jobs are now worrying about things that do stick — lapsed medical insurance, and their own health concerns as they continue to do what they do. While organisations and associations of journalists including press clubs have reached out with financial support, structural questions still go abegging: Do we need unions? Do we need small-savings groups? Maybe we need jod dhanda, that excellent Marathi phrase that describes a side hustle or an extra income stream.

What about journalists’ contracts? If hundreds are being retrenched, a majority of them being contractual staff, do these contracts need a closer look?

Amid a million heart breaks every day, journalists are not noticing their professional world changing decisively.

As a journalist engaging deeply with the world around me, there is one solitary happy takeaway from the lockdown and that is the kindness of strangers. When I came across a young man who’d spent months volunteering with relief teams who was suddenly diagnosed with kidney disease, I posted a vague, angsty message on Twitter. Dozens of strangers reached out and sent money to the young man’s account.

One blazingly hot summer afternoon in the village of Gadchinchle in Palghar where nearly 200 men in a mob had lynched three men on April 16, the wife of one of those arrested invited me into the shade of her sloping roof. She offered me a tumbler of Ambil, a drink made of mealed jowar or sorghum, slightly tart from being fermented overnight. Many tribal families in the region start their day with Ambil instead of tea or coffee, and it reminded me of the Ugali that Kenyan runners drink. I asked her if it was okay for me to drink from her glass, thinking about the woman on the highway who had offered not to drink from my bottle. In a heartbeat, she laughed, pushing the tumbler into my sweaty palm. The drink was refreshing, tasty, and healthy. I remembered that Shabana Azmi public service campaign for AIDS awareness from the 1990s, chhoone se nahi phailta. I wished it could be true of Covid.

But I still went home happy. I’d had some kindness in a glass.

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