Health

Backstory: The Ties That Bind Public Health and Public Journalism

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

One of the realities of journalism today is that the health beat, which once attempted to grapple with real issues, entailed visits to real public hospitals and discussions with real medical experts, has mutated into “wellness journalism”. For those unacquainted with the mysterious aspects of wellness journalism, well, for a start, it comes with pretty pictures of apples and avocados; emphasises a great deal on how you look; focuses on individual solutions, personal agency and consumption choices – “because you are worth it” – and encourages you to spend randomly for what are essentially amorphous outcomes. One of the reasons why “wellness journalism” is thriving in mainstream media platforms is because it is market-friendly, extremely clickable and presumes that boring aspect like basic health needs have already been attended to.

Health journalism, in contrast, is none of these things and, worse, often involves human bodies that the market is not interested in. The Gorakhpur mass deaths clearly involved bodies that corporate India and politicians of all stripes were not particularly invested in – neonates don’t buy FMCGs, they also don’t vote. Their desperate parents are more likely than not to be poor and clueless, running from pillar to post to keep the frail thread of these lives from snapping. It is only when the death toll assumes proportions that could shame the government in power that there is some response, maybe even a passing mention in a prime ministerial Independence Day speech.

Gorakhpur, like Bhopal, has today become a moniker for human-made calamity, yet what is striking and tragic is the manner in which so many media platforms attempted to control the narrative and exonerate Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath and his government.

An important piece in The Wire (‘#TruthOfGorakhpur: The Right-Wing Really Wants You to Believe Adityanath Is Innocent’, August 14) indicated how quickly these dead children were reduced to political fodder. In fact, Gorakhpur revealed the formidable media carapace that protects the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. His media defenders rose up as one to fob off the charge that he, as the state’s highest functionary and Gorakhpur’s five-time MP, carried a large share of the blame for the present crisis. Why is it so difficult for his supporters, who would rather focus on more pressing issues like the singing of Vande Mataram, to accept that the buck stops at his door? He may have made dozens of speeches on Gorakhpur’s encephalitis outbreaks, but it was certainly not among the priorities he had flagged after coming to power (Gorakhpur is What Happens When a Communal Agenda is Passed Off as ‘Good Governance’, August 17). If his diktat to police chiefs that they must ensure “grand Krishna Janmashtami celebrations” even as the funeral rites for the dead children were taking place is any indication, it is unlikely to remain a priority once this season of death passes.

For the media, Gorakhpur holds numerous learnings. It underlined that the ties that bind public health and public journalism are irrevocable and that health journalism needs to be brought back to the mainstream and invested with sufficient funds and personnel. It is no surprise that one of the most persuasive pieces put out by The Wire in this interregnum – appearing first in The Wire Hindi and competently translated thereafter – was a report from the ground (‘How Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College Struggled With Money and Manpower for Years’, August 13). It was among the first to report that the BRD Medical College Hospital admits 2,500 to 3,000 encephalitis patients every year – 60% of cases in the country – yet has no regular financial provision to address the requirements of its encephalitis and neonatal wards.

Gorakhpur also highlighted that journalists are best placed to cut through official deceptions, listen patiently to those who are ailing and pay systematic attention to incipient health crises thus stimulating focused public discussion and policy making. They and their media platforms also act as vital knowledge bridges between medical experts and the lay population. Two valuable contributions in The Wire on the crucial issue of oxygen management came from medical practitioners. In ‘What the Gorakhpur Tragedy Tells Us About India’s Public Healthcare System’, August 17), a public health physician at Jan Swasthya Sahyog, Chhattisgarh, exposed the utterly meaningless way in which ambu bags were handed over to parents when regular supply of oxygen could not be ensured by the authorities:Did they imply that air pumped by handbags could replace the oxygen? This is wrong. All that ambu bags can do is replace a ventilator machine’s bellows by hand bellowing air”.

It’s also “unthinkable that bagging could be left completely to the parents. Giving parents the responsibility to bag their sick child is like the system giving up its responsibility.” Taking up another dimension of the oxygen delivery failure (‘Gorakhpur Incident Brings the Global Debate on Oxygen Delivery Challenges to India’, August 18) is a paediatrician attached to the UK’s National Health Service, who drew our attention to a document brought out by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2012, which had recognised that “oxygen is an essential commodity for any maternal birthing unit, including sub-centres, in the most ‘peripheral’ of India’s rural health facilities, and that all district hospitals should have piped oxygen to their sickest patients…” If this high bar is to be achieved in a context such as India’s with its varied geographies and social realities, the writer notes, it demands a combination of oxygen procurement approaches. Are India’s health administrators listening?

If Gorakhpur indicated one thing, it was the need to rediscover the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration of the International Conference on Primary Health Care, which regarded health for all as a vital human goal and which recognised the importance of “the action of many social and economic sectors in addition to the health sector”. The media is clearly one of these key actors.

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The recent launch of The Wire’s Urdu edition had strong symbolic associations for three reasons: one, it was held on Independence Day and reflected how Urdu was also a language deployed in the struggle for freedom. Two, it had as a chief guest the former Vice President Hamid Ansari, who underlined the fact that Urdu belonged not just one community but “is the language of the entire country”. Ansari’s presence was all the more significant because of the ugly attempts to tarnish and communalise a man noted for his erudition, commitment to the country and fierce independence. Third, the fact that a cyber portal which began as an English language one is now expanding to embrace new languages and their cultures is itself a cause for celebration. Too long have we, the journalistic community in the country, existed in silos imposed by language and the time has come to break through them to share the common insights of news gathering. The move has ignited enthusiasm in many, it seems. Syed Afroz Agha, from Lucknow, presently residing in Atlanta, writes that he has been an Urdu journalist for a long time, having worked with leading dailies like Sahafat, Aag and Avadhnama. He would now like to be “part of The Wire Urdu” and wants to know if he can join in this journey of sharing.

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One of the joys of journalism lies in cross-cultural encounters. Carolina Oms, Brazilian journalist living in Delhi, has been “following and admiring” the portal and would like to drop by in the newsroom to meet up with its reporters and editors to “maybe learn a little bit about journalism in India or exchange ideas about Brazil and media”. In 2017 she had left a position as reporter at the Brazilian Supreme Court to live in New Delhi as a freelancer reporter. She is also the founder and director of AzMina Magazine, an independent non-profit that empowers women through journalism and education.

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