“A 29-year-old man died in the hospital while his wailing wife and children waited outside,” Ronak Shah, a reporter for the Gujarati daily Sandesh said, recalling a tragedy he witnessed on April 12. “The three-year-old daughter kept saying, ‘My father is coming soon and we are here to take him home. I offered her a biscuit to eat, she did not take it. She just kept repeating the same line.”
Ronak said he will never forget this heartbreaking scene which he witnessed while reporting from Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, one of the largest Covid facilities in Gujarat. And it was far from the only tragedy he saw that day. He and two colleagues had been camping outside the hospital for 17 hours, counting each body that came out of the morgue. They ended up counting far more deaths at that one hospital than the state BJP government’s number for the entire city.
So, he isn’t impressed by from the Narendra Modi government and its supporters, including in the media, that journalists should spread “positivity” and not just detail on a daily basis the grisly scenes of death and despair caused by the second wave of the Covid pandemic, which the government had failed to tackle.
“Positivity was nowhere to be seen, it was all just so emotional,” said Ronak, who has since reported from 21 cremation grounds in the city in one night. More importantly, he added, until journalists convey the ground reality, “people will think everything is under control”.
Since the second wave crashed over India, filling up cremation and burial grounds – and now even the river Ganga with the dead – the Modi government has obsessed over salvaging its “image”, which it complains has been unfairly besmirched by the media, especially by foreign outlets. Earlier this month, it held a for 300 top officials on how to create a “positive image” for the government, “manage” perception by “effectively highlighting positive stories”, and not “lose the narrative” by waiting for critical news to break in the media.
Aiding this campaign, the BJP’s mothership, the RSS, held a of video lectures from May 10 to 15 titled “Positivity Unlimited”. Again on May 10, a post from the Twitter account of Modi’s monthly radio show Mann ki Baat implored the public to “celebrate the power of positivity and strengths of 130 crore Indians” by sharing “inspiring stories” for the upcoming episode. India officially recorded over 3.66 lakh new coronavirus infections and 3,754 deaths that day. The actual figures, it is widely suspected, would have been several times higher.
The Modi government’s camp followers in the media such as Sudhir Chaudhary of Zee News have been beating the same positivity drum. On his April 16 primetime show, Chaudhary steered clear of talking about the rising Covid deaths, then ongoing election rallies and the Maha Kumbh in Haridwar – which were already being seen as superspreaders and would prove to be so – “spread positivity” instead of “fear”.
But what do reporters who are covering the Covid catastrophe on the ground make of the ‘positivity’ push? Newslaundry spoke with several of them to find out.
Umesh K Ray, a freelance journalist in Patna has been covering the Covid situation in Bihar for months. In some villages, he said, large populations are down with fever and Covid symptoms but there is negligible testing. If a Covid patient becomes critical, he added, they have to travel 15-20 km to find a hospital because local public health centres aren’t equipped to treat them, only to often be told there aren’t any beds. “This is the truth about the healthcare system in Bihar,” said Ray, “I’m not sure how one can find positivity in this.”
Jyoti Yadav, a reporter for the Print who has been covering the Covid situation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar since April 11, said she often felt helpless. “None of the patients whose families I have met for my stories and tried to help are surviving, except one,” she said. She talked about reporting on the death of an eight-month-pregnant schoolteacher who likely contracted the virus during panchayat poll duty in Uttar Pradesh, on two girls in Bihar orphaned by Covid, and on journalist Vinay Srivastava who all but live tweeted his death for want of oxygen.
In the face of such “mass tragedy” and state failure and apathy, she asked, how can reporters have positive stories to tell? “I can neither find positivity in the story of the orphaned girls nor of the teacher or of the journalist,” she said.
Rohit Mishra, Lucknow correspondent for Navbharat Times, said, “It’s crucial to understand that the truth can’t be positive or negative.” He pointed out how people who can’t afford to pay for cremating their loved ones are floating them down rivers or burying them along the banks. “If we are reaching regions where there is chaos and people are facing a whole host of problems,” he asked, “what positivity do we look for in their suffering?”
Amil Bhatnagar usually covers western Uttar Pradesh for the Indian Express but recently reported from inside a Covid ICU at Delhi’s Holy Family hospital. There, he saw two women, aged 27 and 29, lying unconscious on adjacent ventilator beds, both 32-weeks pregnant. It’s a scene he will never be able to forget, Amil said. “That’s four lives, two unconscious and two unaware, fighting off an invisible virus to survive,” he added.
It isn’t his job as a journalist, Amil pointed out, to satisfy a particular idea or discourse. “When I meet a family who is looking for a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder, my aim is not to think about these aspects of positivity or negativity but to highlight their story.”
Devendra Bhatnagar, state editor of the Gujarati newspaper Divya Bhaskar, sent out his team of reporters to crematoria and hospitals across the state to check if the number of deaths released by the government tallied with reality. He was irked, Devendra explained, that while pyres were burning through the night and iron furnaces melting, the government was showing few deaths. “These are not just numbers, they are people, someone’s parents, children, relatives,” he said. But the government, just to save its image, was not even acknowledging them.
As for the argument that such coverage of the pandemic creates panic, he replied, “If this very media that is being called negative didn’t publish the actual death toll, there would have been more deaths” since people wouldn’t be as careful.
In Delhi, where so many people died for want of medical oxygen and beds last month, Vijayta Lalwani of Scroll has been on the ground covering the disaster. She recalled visiting a crematorium for one report. “All I saw there was grief,” she said. “One of the workers at a crematorium told me there were more bodies there than wood.”
She said it didn’t make much sense to think of news as positive or negative, news is supposed to be just about the facts. “And if the facts on the ground are reflecting such devastation,” she added, “we would be doing a disservice by not reporting the ground reality.”