Covid crisis: Why isn’t Big Media holding the government accountable?

If politicians do not speak, it falls on the media to find ways to tell the full story of what’s going on.

ByKalpana Sharma
Covid crisis: Why isn’t Big Media holding the government accountable?
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I am writing this on a day when daily new coronavirus infections in India have touched two lakh. Perhaps after a year of having various numbers thrown at us, Indians are failing to grasp the gravity of the situation. But surely the responsibility for that lies with those whose job it is to convey the seriousness.

Instead, on one hand we are witnessing the daily surreal drama of these increasing numbers, and on the other visuals suggesting there is no pandemic as lakhs gather in Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela and thousands crowd election rallies in Bengal to listen to India's two most powerful men, the prime minister and the home minister.

There are few masks to be seen in Haridwar or Bengal and the only physical distance in the election rallies is between the highly excitable, mostly male crowd, stuck together in true Indian style, and the dignitaries on the raised stage.

This is not imagery that conveys the crisis facing India. Yet, although some in the media, and many more on social media, are asking questions, there are few expressions of anger or frustration in the public or in mainstream media.

In the United States, former president Donald Trump's election rallies last year where he openly showed disdain for wearing masks, were recognised as super-spreader events and the media didn’t hesitate to criticise him. But in India it seems our leaders exist in the stratosphere, untouched by this willful indifference towards a virus that is causing widespread suffering and death.

Readers will forgive me for this rant, but as a journalist one feels helpless and defeated when those who have the power to convey a credible message on the pandemic choose instead to demonstrate by example that they care more about winning a state election than the lives of citizens.

If the politicians do not speak, except to exhort ordinary citizens about how they must behave, it falls on the media to find ways to tell the full story of what’s going on. It is not easy, hampered as many media organisations are today by limited staff, having laid off hundreds of journalists last year. Yet it can and must be done.

This time last year, we were still in a national lockdown. Today, there is a sense of deja vu that so little has changed, that instead of moving forward we are slipping backwards.

In April 2020, the nature of the disease and how it had spread was still to be fully grasped. Today we know more of the science. We also have vaccines that can provide some protection, although not complete. And all this ought to make us not just more knowledgeable, but also better prepared.

And here when I use "us" I mean not just ordinary people, but especially those who make decisions, the people in government.

Unfortunately, the actions of the central government in the last several weeks have blown away all hopes that lessons were learnt in the last year.

From denial to obfuscation to a total callous disregard for the seriousness of the crisis, we have seen it all. And on top of it, we have witnessed petty politics over the allocation of vaccines while the country is literally burning (a sad metaphor when one looks at the crisis facing crematoria in Gujarat in the last week or so).

For the media, the second or third wave of the pandemic poses many more challenges than we faced last year. How do you keep telling the same story over and over again? How do you strike a balance between reporting credible information and being alarmist? How do you hold the government to account when even accurate data is not always available?

Fortunately, despite the pathetic state of our television news channels, there are still journalists who are doing the job they are tasked to do.

Take developments in the last couple of weeks. In Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the state governments seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the crisis facing their states even as the central government remains focused on Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Punjab, where there has been a steady rise in cases. The politics of this policy of side-stepping the former two states is rather obvious but we need not go there at present.

The relevant question for the media is how we can question and challenge official versions of the crisis such as the deaths due to Covid.

In Gujarat, the media must be commended for doing just this. According to a report by Aarefa Johari in Scroll, local newspapers and television channels have exposed the "staggering mismatch" between official figures and the reality. For instance, on April 12, in Ahmedabad the official figure of those dying from Covid was given as 20. Yet a leading Gujarati newspaper, Sandesh, said it had tracked 63 deaths by posting its journalists outside the morgue of the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital from midnight to 5 am on April 12.

If this was not bad enough, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani put out patently wrong information about how Covid deaths are counted by claiming that Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines stipulated that only those whose primary cause of death was the virus were counted and not those with comorbidities where this would be the secondary cause. This is in fact the exact opposite of what the ICMR has stipulated. One wonders then how many other chief ministers in this country are misguided like Rupani and are, therefore, fudging Covid death data.

In Madhya Pradesh, the same story is being played out as exposed by NDTV. Journalists from the channel tracked the number of cremations and compared this with the official death data. On April 8, in Bhopal alone, 41 bodies were cremated following Covid protocols whereas the official figure was only 27 deaths for the entire state. A story in India Today reveals a similar picture. It is more than likely that this is the case in more than one state in India.

If this was not worrying enough, according to this article in Time magazine, for every one reported infection of Covid in India, there could be between 26 to 32 that have not been reported. This is based on a serological survey conducted between August and September 2020. And according to Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, who is quoted in the article, not only is there undercounting of those infected by a factor of 30, there is likely an undercounting of deaths as well. "For 80 percent of deaths, we have no medically identified cause of death at any given time,” he says.

Then take the question of mutations. Here again, there is science but also official obfuscation. The science is working at establishing the exact nature of the mutant strain or strains that are spreading. Instead of encouraging information on this to be made public, so that people are aware of the seriousness of the situation, the government has attempted to hide it or downplay it as this article in Scroll points out. One of the reasons attributed for the dramatic surge in Maharashtra is the "double mutant" that was first detected in the state. It has now been detected in 10 other states.

Today in India, we are facing not just a dramatic and troubling surge in infections and deaths due to Covid but a crisis of credibility as far as governments are concerned, both at the Centre and in the states. The principal reason for this is their inability to give out credible, science-based information to a public that’s drained and exhausted after more than a year of the pandemic.

Perhaps this tweet from Brahmar Mukherjee best sums up the current state of affairs:

For us in the media, possibly the most significant lesson from this last year is the importance of public health reporting. Let me emphasise “public”. Reporting on health had deteriorated in the corporate media to stories on lifestyle diseases, on new medical technologies and on high-profile medical personnel.

Public health reporting requires an understanding not just of health infrastructure and what is lacking therein, but also constant tracking of the less glamorous diseases, many of which are perennial such as tuberculosis. It is this kind of reporting that prepares journalists for health emergencies, such as the one we are facing today.

Unfortunately, given the financial cutbacks in the media over this last year, few major news organisations are willing to invest in this kind of journalism. Yet we know now that the Covid pandemic is not the last such crisis we will face.

This is as good a time as any to train a generation of journalists who will understand the science and the politics of health emergencies and provide the public with credible information.

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