Journalism in the time of a pandemic



Every once in a while, we come across a serious issue which is complex and so very difficult to understand. We are not specialists; at best, we are generalists. Yet, we are expected to read and understand technical matters, including sensitive medical issues. Can we get it wrong? Could we be off-target? Of course, we could. One thing is more than clear: journalism can be hazardous in times of epidemics, leave aside pandemics.

There is also another a fine dividing line here. On the one hand, one has to reflect reality, and not be in denial. Yet, on the other hand, one has to be careful about spreading fake news, sensationalism or half-truths that have a tendency to create panic. This can happen by mistake, and even without malice.

It’s entirely a different matter that in a social media-fuelled world, anyone and their dog can share any message there, make it go viral, and thus have as much impact as the media does. Sometimes, a much bigger impact. Even as I type this, at the side of me a video is playing on YouTube called: Myths and misinformation spreading on social media about coronavirus’. Ironic, you might say, Myths about social media, being discussed on the social media itself.

One cannot but have empathy to those working in journalism especially in the “field”, or on editorial desks. They face the pressures of carrying out their job in very trying times. For much of the past week, media persons were concerned about how they could go about their work, get access to “curfew passes”, whether work-from-home really worked, find supplies to keep body and soul together, and make sure what they wrote actually reached the reader.

In between, the media had to underline its importance during pandemic times. Newspapers came together to publish an advert pointing to why print and its industry had a role to play. Published last Monday, it said that “it seems fake news on social media is spreading faster than the virus itself… Wait until the truth in print makes its way to your doorstep.”

In his Janata Curfew call for last Sunday, the Prime Minister included the media as one of the ‘essential services’ which was exempted from the close-down. But, in times like these, the media faces its own challenges. Bundles of papers can lie unsold when restrictions block movement, and delivery people are unable or reluctant to ferry across papers in uncertain times. Besides, the media persons also have the task of covering events which can sometimes be crowded. At times when everyone is talking about social distancing, this can cause concern.

* * *

With an epidemic or pandemic that manifests itself suddenly, how is one supposed to write without playing down the risks, living in denial, and yet not falling in line and needlessly exaggerating?

Without commenting on what finally turns out to be the health impact of Covid-19, one can recall some earlier experiences. At that time too, the sudden outbreak of new or long-unheard about disease caused great panic and concern.

In the late 1980s, when the first case of a locally-based Goan HIV/AIDS victim was detected, there was panic all around. He happened to be our college mate of ours, Domnic D’Souza of Parra, who had studied in Mapusa. Soon after he was found to be HIV positive, Domnic was immediately kept under an armed guard. He was initially housed at a disused Tuberculosis sanatorium on the outskirts of Mapusa. A photographer clicked a dramatic photo showing an armed policeman keeping guard outside the centre, as the patient was compulsorily detained inside.

Domnic’s friends and colleagues, including those from a drama group which he was part of, personally fought for his human rights. Lawyers from Bombay (as the city was still known) and medicos like I Gilada, also raised questions about whether he was getting a fair and rational treatment.

At some point, Domnic agreed to an interview with some journalists who showed a willingness to undertake the same. To be honest, we were frankly a bit afraid ourselves to visit…but we anyway did do so. Myths about the spread of HIV/AIDS were already being challenged, and we went to his hospital bed, thanks to the activist Roland Martins who arranged the permissions. This included Pushpa Iyengar, then with the Times of India, Armenia Fernandes of The Navhind Times then, and this columnist.

Even in 2002, The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, carried articles (by Stephanie Clark, in this case) which mentioned that the epidemic was “out of control” and it was still in its early stages. By around now, in 2022, some 70 million were expected to have died of AIDS. If one goes by the predictions then, Africa was supposed to have got completely devastated by HIV/AIDS by now.

By end 2018, the number of deaths since the beginning of the epidemic was 32 million. This is quite a huge figure actually, even though it was staggered over many decades, between the 1980s and now. A bigger number is living with HIV today.

Despite the huge figure, the concern and panic that was once connected with HIV/AIDS today seems largely absent. Have we conquered it? Have we learned to live with it? Have we just lost our fear of the unknown, even if the threat exists? Does one hear of HIV/AIDS today (not that it’s gone away)? Is there money being poured into funding campaigns over it, as there once was?

When SARS came up, the doctors addressing the press conference donned masks. This made for a dramatic photo. We have also lived through fears over swine-flu, ebola, Japanese encephalitis (anyone remembers Santo Estevam in the early 1980s?), and more.

The plague was a word everyone forgot for long. It struck India around 1898, and then reared its head in our lifetime in Surat around 1994. The “Spanish” flu killed up to 18 million in India by some estimates (and up to 100 million worldwide) in 1918.

When visiting a friend’s home in Socorro, Bardez, about three or more decades ago, I recall seeing a photo showing coffins of three young bodies at a Goa burial. The family which showed me the photo believed these were deaths from around the time of the Spanish flu.

As has been pointed out, what we have lived with in the past is nothing like Covid-19. The worst-case scenarios on Covid-19 might just be true; but the question is also about how we learn to live with it over time. If we do.

Some younger friends, animated as they are over environmental issues, and rightly so, pointed out online that our world could be a better place, if as much attention as given to Covid-19 was paid to the climate change crisis. Likewise, nobody gives this importance to poverty, which by some estimates kills an estimated 18,000 children worldwide a day. A vaccine for this exists; called food. But these are slow-moving stories, which take years to unfold, and we have perhaps grown desensitised to.

It’s quite possible we don’t quite understand the seriousness of Covid-19 yet, and the images of coffins lined up in Italy, photos of priests who died there, and the like, can indeed touch a deep chord. The worst-case scenarios on Covid might just be true, but the question is also about how we learn to live with it over time. If we do.

Fear has a way of getting human attention. Getting that fine line between being in denial, dismissive and also avoiding exaggeration and sensationalism can be a tougher task.