‘Who will write about us if we fall sick?’: The vulnerability of journalists in the time of Covid-19

Mediapersons are under pressure on the frontlines, often without protective gear or enough support from their employers.

WrittenBy:Shweta Desai
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As cases of the novel coronavirus began appearing in Dharavi — where some 8.5 lakh people reside on a patch of land measuring 2.4 sq km — news channels and photographers from Mumbai scrambled to capture stories of the chaos and the challenge of preventing transmission in Asia's largest slum.

Health workers dressed in full personal protective gear traversed the narrow alleys, door-to-door, conducting thermal screening, contact tracing, and swab testing. And journalists followed close behind. With only a mask for protection, some journalists even ventured inside the demarcated zones to provide exclusive visuals and ground reports of the outbreak.

As of April 22, Dharavi had 11 containment zones with 180 cases and 12 deaths. Days later, many journalists reporting from Dharavi and other places from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, which has the highest tally of cases and fatalities in the country, tested positive for coronavirus.

Of the 171 swab tests conducted, 53 were positive. Before this, another 20-odd journalists from Thane and Navi Mumbai were found to be infected. The affected journalists are currently quarantined at four different locations across Mumbai's suburbs, and seven with underlying diseases have been hospitalised.

Almost all the positive cases are asymptomatic, barring a few minor throat infections.

None of the journalists realised that the limited precautions (mask, gloves and hand sanitisers) they were taking while reporting from containment areas were inadequate. While more test results are awaited and additional testing camps being lined up, there is a rising concern that the number of positive cases will be higher.

The case of the Mumbai journalists testing positive is the largest in the country in terms of high-risk groups. Unlike the Nizamuddin case, there is no single source or geographical location from where the journalists contracted the virus. They are not employed with a single organisation, they don't reside in one housing complex, and not all of them were exposed to the hotspots in the same manner.

The only common thread in the cluster? That the 53, including photographers, TV channel reporters, camerapersons, engineers, and OB van and vehicle drivers, were carrying video or photo equipment for reporting.

In a letter to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, Gurbir Singh, the president of the Mumbai Press Club, wrote: "Most media houses have shut their offices and have not provided any protective gear or special insurance to their frontline personnel. However, they continue to demand reports and visuals, and expect the journalists to move around the city risking life and limb."

The lack of proper protection

Reporters and photographers file their stories from home or from OB (outside broadcasting) vans. Camerapersons are asked to carry their equipment home. The result? Most active journalists and their equipment became silent carriers of Covid-19.

"This is most likely a case of contact transmission through the surface of inanimate objects which, in this case could be cameras, mics or recorders,” said Dr Sujata Baweja, a microbiologist with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, who was part of the testing process. “Wearing hand gloves and surgical masks is not enough protection. The handlers need to sanitise their equipment every two hours, especially if they are visiting hotspot zones."

A recent publication by German medical researchers found that coronavirus can survive on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days. They can also be efficiently removed by surface disinfection procedures within a minute.

Baweja observed that journalists visiting hotspots across the city have not been using proper protection, following hand hygiene, or cleaning their equipment with disinfectant wipes.

During his Janta curfew address on March 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared journalists and media people as essential service who will remain active during the lockdown. Journalism calls for reporting from the field, especially in times of crisis. Working from dangerous situations to get news and visuals from the frontline is an occupational hazard for journalists.

While a regular person's first instinct is to get far away from fire, unless he/she is a firefighter, a journalist's is antithetical: to get as close in the direction of the fire, witness the burning flames, and to investigate if it was an accident or arson. In the prevailing unprecedented global crisis, the need for accurate coverage for the vital interest of the general public is more critical than ever.

Journalists have been working relentlessly before and during the lockdown, documenting positive cases, the suffering of migrant workers, and exposing the government's mishandling of the health emergency. All along, no one anticipated, least of all media organisations, that if the doctors, nurses, and police officers in the frontlines were getting infected, journalists could be next.

"Newspapers in the printing press are sanitised, but no sanitation measures [exist] for us news collectors," said Narayan, a senior photographer with a leading national daily.

Sunita, a health journalist with a newspaper that is part of a multimedia conglomerate, used contacts of doctors and hospitals in good faith to source 100 N97 masks and sanitisers which she distributed amongst her photographer colleagues.

"I knew that if I have to report on health issues from hospitals and interact with frontline workers, I need proper protection,” Sunita said. “Ideally, this should be the job of our organisation to provide the reporting staff with protective gear, but they didn't."

Narayan said, "It is our job to take pictures from risky and dangerous situations; no one is complaining about that. With coronavirus, the dangers are different. We could be exposed to infection anywhere, and there was no effort to provide us with any protection."

He spent Rs 800 to buy an N97 mask from the black market, along with sanitiser and gloves. "The only form of assurance from the bosses came with token words: ‘don't take risks and take care’."

Pressure to produce news

On April 12, some journalists in the central suburbs of Thane tested positive after coming in contact with a senior policeman, following which the pressroom in Thane Municipal Corporation was shut down. The incident was a wake-up call for members in the media, who realised the vulnerability of camera persons and reporters working in the field. Print and electronic media houses continued coverage, but none stepped up to test their employees working from outside home.

The TV Journalists’ Association realised the risks for its members who work behind the camera and are often underpaid. "Many camera people have already lost their jobs in the lockdown as channels have reduced their staff. If more people were to fall sick due to coronavirus, there would be no one to look after them," said one member on the condition of anonymity.

With media houses refusing any responsibility towards the reporting staff in the time of a health emergency, journalists got together and decided to cooperate. The TV Journalists’ Association, the press club, journalists’ unions and others worked up their contacts, and demanded that Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray help journalists. The Shiv Sena-ruled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation organised a camp at the press club for anyone from news media working actively from outside home to come forward and get tested.

The high numbers were not entirely unexpected. Under lockdown, as public life is confined and news flow concentrates around coronavirus, journalists are under tremendous pressure to keep the churn of fresh photographs and on the spot visuals.

"How many times can you print the same photos of empty streets and policemen assaulting the general public, or punishing them for breaking the lockdown. The effort from our side is to show something different to the readers every day," said a principal photographer who has tested positive.

For news channels who compete to be the first one to air the visuals, the drive for on-spot reporting is even higher. If one channel covers a particular story, which is different or exclusive, other channels compel their journalists to follow up and send similar visuals — the Dharavi case being one such example.

The verbal advisory issued by media houses to all the journalists Newslaundry spoke with was common: Don't take unnecessary risks, use sanitisers and masks, maintain social distancing, but keep the flow of news and photos.

Journalists took risks, without knowing that the outbreak would be the worst in Maharashtra, and that Mumbai would headline as the corona capital of India.

"We were going out every day and even in the lockdown clocking a 10-hour shift. The only difference was we were filing our work from home and not from the office which was shut down earlier on," said BD, a senior photojournalist with a leading national daily, who tested positive.

Print photographers, who operate in tightly-knit groups and share close camaraderie, fragmented and took care to not mingle with others. They would start early in the morning as the first bunch of lockdown defiers would land on the street for morning walks or grocery shopping, and wrap up by early evening.

Each one of them began to travel alone, instead of having the regular company of pillion reporters, to reach the spot. They used zoom lenses, shot pictures, and moved on. Covid-19 hospitals were off the target list while photos of containment zones, and patients waiting for tests, were shot from long-distance.

But as reports came of people in slum areas getting infected, journalists had to go closer to the people to document their stories.

In the crowded narrow alleys, it was impossible to not touch a surface or brush against people. "We can't see the enemy (virus); we don't know which direction the attack will come from. A simple, innocent pat on the shoulder by a stranger could turn out fatal. I still don't know where I got it from," BD said.

Not just journalists in the field

In January, AFP was the only international news agency to send two teams for eight days to Wuhan city: the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. During the time the team of photographers and camera persons were in Wuhan, there were 300 deaths and 10,000 cases of infection in China.

After filming shocking visuals and dispatching the earliest ground reports from Wuhan, the journalists were brought to a holiday resort in southern France and held in quarantine.

In India too, international news organisations issued written editorial guidelines and sent protective kits to their reporting staff.

"Reportage involving people who are sick or could be sick requires additional safety equipment and needs to be approved by the bureau chief," reads one such advisory accessed by Newslaundry. When the team from one of the leading international wire agencies went to cover the migrant crisis in Delhi and in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, photographers and journalists were given protective eyewear, surgical masks, gloves, sanitisers and disinfectant wipes to clean the camera equipment.

Mrunali, a special correspondent of an English news channel, recalled how she and others had to push the management to conduct testing for the team after they found some colleagues working on desk had the infection.

"It was disturbing because, unlike us, they were not even going to the field," said Mrunali.

Explaining that TV news teams of various media houses in Mumbai are not large, operate in close proximity, travel together in OB vans and media vehicles, the risk of transmitting infection from others in the fraternity was higher. "We meet each other daily, and visit the same spots. If one of us has it, there is a big possibility that other colleagues in our contact will have it too."

This is how a team of four members of a leading Hindi national news channel who were reporting from various places across Mumbai tested positive. The team reported from outside Kasturba hospital, a Covid-19 facility, and from Dadar, Byculla, Mahim, and Scion — all marked as high-risk areas.

Newslaundry spoke to one of the non-journalist support staff in quarantine, who was shocked to receive the call from a BMC health official informing him that his test result was positive.

"I panicked on receiving the news but after speaking with another colleague who also tested positive, got a bit assured,” he said. “Viewers don't see us or our work, which is carried out after journalists and camerapersons complete their work. We don't step outside for reporting, so I don't know how I got the virus."

A native of Uttar Pradesh, working in Mumbai with the channel for the last seven years, the young man said he received a call from his boss giving him courage. "He said, don't think a lot about it, nothing grave has happened. Drink hot water for the throat. Jitna himmat se ladenge, utna jaldi bahar aayenge."

The man said he would resume his job after the quarantine if the company asks him to.

Difficulty in quarantining

During the Janta curfew, a TV channel experimented with work from home and aired live bulletins of its star anchors from their residences. This luxury was, however, not extended to the field reporters and camera persons.

Sonali, one among the handful of female TV journalists still reporting, criticised the discrimination in the treatment meted out to field reporters and camerapersons and the lack of facilities available to them.

"We are coming out weekly for on-field coverage, but there are several difficulties, like accessing toilets and food when the entire city is in lockdown," she said.

Media houses have cut back on production, have scheduled teams to work on alternate days or weeks, and have advised journalists to self-quarantine at home after every reporting trip.

In Mumbai, quarantining at home in matchbox-sized apartments is as much of a difficulty for journalists as for millions of other residents. For Gauri, a journalist, the news of her journalist-husband testing positive has added to the dilemma of continuing work or dealing with personal woes.

"I live with my young daughter and aged mother in a 1 BHK flat,” Gauri said. “There is no place for isolation. We were glad when the authorities provided isolation facilities."

The journalist couple worked throughout the lockdown, reporting for different channels. "Everytime we would step out for reporting, there was a feeling of guilt that we were putting our families at risk," she said.

Kabir, a journalist in Mumbai, had foreseen the grave challenges of the pandemic even before the lockdown was announced. Following news reports from Wuhan, Italy, and other hotspots, he telephoned a doctor friend and asked about the precautions one needs to take in case of an outbreak.

"Apart from the sanitising measures, he suggested if I was going to be reporting, then I should isolate myself from my family." So, from mid-March onwards, Kabir rented another flat in his building and began living separately. He talks to his family on the phone and they leave meals for him outside the door.

"This way, I can go to report daily without putting my family at risk," he pointed out.

But Kabir’s news channel has no idea that its employee is paying a good part of his salary on renting an isolation accommodation to keep himself and his family safe.

BD, the senior photojournalist, said the news of him testing positive had a grave psychological impact on him.

"As a family man, I am starting to panic. I was taking care to disinfect my camera bag and myself after coming back from assignments daily. But after the results, I am considering stopping work for a while,” he said. “I don't want to drag my wife and kids to the risks of infection unnecessarily."

Waman, a freelance photographer, said he cut down on assignments from the time he heard of the first coronavirus casualties in the city. "I used to sit on my bike and shoot. I avoided getting off the bike or walking close to the spot. My wife broke down after learning about my test result. She would tell me not to go outside, saying we'd manage our expenses somehow. Now I will stay home after quarantine and wait for the cases to reduce."

Companies should protect their employees

After Mumbai, 27 employees of a TV channel in Chennai tested positive for coronavirus. Following this, governments in Karnataka and Delhi proposed exclusive health camps to test journalists. The high number of cases has prompted the information and broadcasting ministry to issue an advisory for media persons covering Covid-19 to "take due health and related precautions while performing their duties."

The vague advisory further calls upon the management of media houses to take "necessary care of their field staff as well as office staff".

But journalists need action from their organisations in these unprecedented times, not just hollow words. Given the situation in Mumbai, the Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, Daniel Bastard, said, "We call on media houses both in Maharashtra and in other states and territories to come up with an emergency health insurance system for journalists and media workers."

The Mumbai Press Club has also demanded the state government include the category of working journalists under essential service workers and provide them with a protection cover of Rs 50 lakh as health insurance. Ideally, the onus of protecting journalists lies with the media houses that employ them.

Making any demands or seeking concessions at this time seems unlikely since most journalists are worried about losing their jobs owing to the economic repercussions of the pandemic. In April, media houses across the country laid off staff and proposed salary cuts.

With the delivery of newspapers coming to a halt and advertisements being reduced to a trickle, print media employees are most vulnerable.

"We are taking great risk, putting our families in danger for coverage. Forget extra money, they are not even letting us have our full salaries. There is a constant fear that once we test positive, we will be told to stay at home and not return," said Narayan.

While the history of coronavirus will be remembered through news reports across the globe, journalists in India are keenly aware that many among them who are putting their lives at risk to cover the pandemic from the front lines, will not receive anything beyond token gratitude.

"When doctors and the nurses fall sick due to lack of PPE, we write about them. When the patients don't get beds and wait for hours gasping, we write about them. When cops face difficulties in containing the lockdown, we write about them. But who will write about us and take care of us when we, journalists, fall sick?" asked Sunita.

Note: The names of all the media persons mentioned in the report have been changed to protect their identities.


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