The second wave of COVID-19 that has devastated India has thrown up horrific images from across the country. Crematoriums with long lines of corpses, desperate families running from pillar to post for oxygen cylinders and queuing up outside centres that give out drugs for COVID-19 treatment, and the heartrending cries of those who have lost their loved ones forever.
The visuals and stories coming in from different states have blown apart the myth that India had conquered the coronavirus, an assertion that PM Narendra Modi had made earlier this year. Even in March, as the country was seeing an uptick in the number of cases being reported, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared that "we are in the endgame of COVID-19 pandemic in India". With the country's leaders announcing victory over the virus, and flouting COVID-19 protocol themselves by participating in large election rallies, encouraging religious gatherings and appearing in public without masks, the citizens too came to believe that the pandemic was over.
It is this false sense of security that led many to become careless, leading to the tsunami of cases that we're witnessing today. However, there is a narrative being built around the coverage of the pandemic.
On April 28, mental health professionals BN Gangadhar, Pratima Murthy, Gautam Saha and Rajesh Sagar addressed an open letter to the media, asking journalists to show restraint on covering the pandemic. The coverage should "allay fears" by providing helpful information on where medicines can be procured, hopeful stories of human triumph, organisations working to help in such a situation and so on. The coverage should not induce panic which can result in affecting the mental health of viewers, the letter said.
There are also viral forwards and videos referencing this letter that are doing the rounds on platforms like WhatsApp, where the media has been painted as "vultures" who are indulging in voyeurism. And even more absurdly, terming this as Hinduphobia exhibited by the media since many images show burning pyres.
It has been pointed out that the first signatory of the letter, Dr BN Gangadhar, is an RSS member, and photographs of him sitting along with RSS functionaries have been doing the rounds on social media. With the international media also turning its gaze to the situation in India, the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS, have been scrambling to control the narrative and inject "positivity" in the coverage.
But, even if we are to assume that these concerns are not politically motivated, the convenient practice of shooting the messenger needs to be questioned. Especially now, when the messengers in mainstream news channels, particularly in English and Hindi, are known to prattle the Union government's version of nearly every news that makes the headlines.
People are not statistics
Tragedies don't merely happen, they happen to people. The job of the media is to not only report statistics but also to tell the human stories. Yes, the angry daughter who questions the Chief Minister of a state deserves to be featured. The devastated son who is begging the police not to take away his mother's oxygen cylinder deserves to have his voice heard. The families of those who died gasping for breath in swanky hospitals in metro cities deserve a platform for their anger.
This tragedy didn't just fall into our laps, splitting the skies open. It happened due to the government's callous, careless attitude and gross negligence. From ignoring expert advice to not even placing enough orders for vaccines, the government is responsible for the crisis that we find ourselves in. Yet, who has been held accountable for this?
When the Union Health Minister continues to insist that India has the world's lowest fatality rate and state bulletins show less than half of how many people were cremated in a single crematorium from that state, what is the media to do to expose their lies? Even in Gujarat, where the media in general is known to be friendly to the BJP-led state government, this second wave has forced journalists to ask the administration tough questions on dropping the ball.
Should the media obediently report official figures when right before their eyes, they can see the lines for corpses outside crematoriums? The media did not photoshop the burning pyres or the macabre image of floating bodies in a river. It is what is happening. Do we turn away and pretend that it is not? It is ironic that the media is being accused of engaging in 'eyeball-grabbing coverage' when several journalists themselves have succumbed to the virus, and many others have lost their family to it. This is not a spectacle for any of us living in these times.
More importantly, it's not like journalists are thrusting their mics to the faces of friends and families of patients and forcing them to speak. Desperate people are actively seeking help wherever they can get it, from social media to reporters, to amplify their urgent requests. This includes celebrities. Even doctors and hospitals have taken to placing their request for oxygen cylinders on Twitter or the media, hoping that at least this will push the impassive government into acting with urgency.
Not just the media in India
From across the world, whether it is China, Italy, Germany, the US or UK, we have been witnessing images of the dead. Exhausted doctors from nations like Italy that had been devastated by the virus, wrote long accounts of the horror that they were confronting, warning the world not to take the virus lightly. These stories ought to have led the government of India, where the pandemic broke out later, to predict what was coming and prepare. But they did not.
On May 24, 2020, the front page of The New York Times remembered the Americans who had died due to the coronavirus. "They were not simply names on a list. They were us" read the caption. The front page came at a time when the Trump administration was being criticised for not being proactive in dealing with the pandemic, leading to the deaths of nearly a lakh people at the time. The pandemic, in other words, is not merely about facts and figures, it is about people. And apart from the interviews with experts, the reports on medicines, resource availability, vaccines and many other stories that the media is doing, the human stories also deserve to be told.
The pandemic is sure to have adversely affected the mental health of several people across the world due to a variety of reasons. This needs to be addressed, certainly, but do not blame the media for holding those who are responsible for this tragedy accountable. If the messenger is gagged, the message dies on their tongue. And who benefits here if that is to happen? Is it the public or those who rule over them? If journalism is for public good, make no mistake, the media must continue to speak, shout, scream until the message becomes impossible to ignore for those in power.