Backstory: Media Please Note, COVID-19 Has Brought out the Best and Worst in Us

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

The interesting thing about the COVID-19 crisis is the manner in which it has assumed the dimensions of a gigantic mirror in which we, as a society, can catch a glimpse of ourselves, with some help from alert reporters.

Having followed some of the stories carried by The Wire over the last fortnight, one is immediately struck by the many qualities of humanity invested in ordinary folk in the most eviscerating of times. What is it that makes a junior resident at AIIMS, Patna – Dr Raman Kishor – go beyond the call of caring for the sick, to take upon himself the task of feeding hungry migrants at Patna Railway Station? Or Priya Amit Batra, who could have spent her free time catching up with the latest in women’s wear – she is an apparel entrepreneur? She has instead set herself the task of cooking for at least 15 migrant families trudging down the Jaipur national highway on their way home (‘Doing Their Bit: The Extraordinary Men and Women of These Extraordinary Times’, April 7)?

Members of the transgender community experience vilification every day of their lives, but why hasn’t this hardened the community to turn away when faced with serious impoverishment of people not like them? Why shouldn’t the hijras of Panna Nakka, Chattarpur, not be celebrated for trying to stem the hunger of the homeless worker? (‘In Madhya Pradesh, Ordinary People Emerge Heroes Amidst Lockdown’, April 6).  In Baramulla’s Paazwanpora areas, young Faheem Mir struggles with his 2G phone to download information on the coronavirus in order to share it with local villagers through a WhatsApp group. He does this, he says, because he is concerned about the “safety of my people” (‘No Crisis Too Big For Kashmir’s Young Volunteers’, April 8).

Extraordinary too are those who go beyond their own communities to reach out to the desperate and deprived. An exceptional PTI report, carried by several news outlets including The Wire (‘Mumbai: Muslims Help Perform Last Rites of Hindu Neighbour Amid Lockdown’, April 9), was one such example. It revealed how Muslim neighbours cremated their 68-year-old Hindu neighbour, making sure that all the rites were followed, including the mandatory chanting of “Ram naam satya hai.”

Also Read: Five COVID-19 Policy Mistakes India Could Have Done Without

Those who persisted with old crises even in the face of the new one, need to be acknowledged as well. The pogrom that tore through northeast Delhi in February seems to have been forgotten with the Delhi government having stopped claiming credit for its riot outreach in these localities (the Central government in any case never even pretended to do so). Those wounds have not healed, the grief over loss of the once-living has not receded, the houses remain burned down,  the people now have to cope with the doubling of their burdens (‘Coronavirus Fears Are a Double Whammy for Displaced Victims of Delhi Riots’, March 25). Yet there are many still working in these forgotten edges of the capital, trying to do their best for the survivors (‘Please Don’t Forget the North East Delhi Violence Victims in the Coronavirus Din’, April 10).

It is difficult to gauge whether these scenarios would have played out in a similar way were it not for the backdrop of an unimaginable pandemic, but they do indicate that something important does survive in the desolation wrought by six years of Hindu authoritarian rule and it is important for journalists – at least those that still see themselves as such – to make apparent these developments as often as they can, because they represent valuable resources in the battle against the politics of class, caste and religious hate. As Russian litterateur and dramatist, Anton Chekhov, observed, “Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.” But the characteristic of the present crisis is that it is about day to day living and it has become extremely easy to use it as fuel to further hate politics.

Just as COVID-19 has brought out the best in us, it has also brought to the surface the grit of the lower depths of this nation-state, and here too the services of the independent journalist eye-witness are of great value. These past few weeks have deepened and fostered the divides between the privileged and the disadvantaged; between reason and unreason; between state and citizen; between men and women; between the savarna and the Dalit; between Hindu and Muslim. The clear-eyed question raised by the five-year-old daughter of a domestic helper needs to be heard: “Toh hum sub mar jayenge – so are all of us going to die? (‘The Indian Elite Have Taken Azadi From Bharat’, April 2) needs to be heard from the Red Fort’s ramparts. Many of the decisions taken by the Narendra Modi government in this period reveal a tone-deafness to such questions and unfortunately, the media is not doing enough to break through the sound barrier on behalf of those who have no lobbyists on Raisina Hill.

As the writer of the piece, ‘Modi, Coronavirus and the Plague on Reason’ (April 4), argues, while the fatter cats amongst us have been able to sneak in some of their demands for more saucers of milk in the government‘s COVID-19 policymaking, why for instance are policies designed specifically for those whose very lives are threatened by this crisis been so long in coming and so short in intent? Where is the freeze on evictions, the free admission in all hospitals, the special trains for migrant workers, the helplines for women living in fear of their husband’s fists during the lockdown?

Instead, we have had a surge of prime ministerial caprice (‘India’s Power Grid Survived ‘Diya Jalao’, Only Thanks to Drastic Action Behind the Scenes’, April 6) and irrationality that was in magical sync with the glorification of the leader. As cries of ‘Corona hai hai’ blended in with ‘Modi zindabad’ (‘Modi Harnesses ‘Power of Light’, Questions Remain on Strategy to Combat COVID-19’, April 5), it left one wondering whether one should cry or laugh (‘Darkness to Light, Some Questions on the Pradhan Mantri Corona-Virodhi Ojasvi Parikalpana’, April 4). To expect the mainstream media to call out the ridiculousness of this nine-minute tableau choreographed by the prime minister may have been to expect too much in this day of abject prostration, but even a goodly silence would have done. What we had was a continuous assault on our intelligence through prime time television programming, as those nine nonsensical minutes were talked up to a point where it represented a singular breakthrough in the management of the pandemic. This, for instance, was on news channel advertising itself: Diya jalega aur Corona harega. Today, #9pm9Minute #DiyaJalaoBharatJodo. Stay tuned to TIMES NOW mega build up & the widest coverage.

People watch PM Narendra Modi addressing the nation amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease, March 19, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave

More disturbing was the way Hindutva vigilantes, now in lockdown mode and therefore deprived of the chance to chase cattle lorries, were allowed to unleash their communal venom into media programming and government policymaking in this important period of tracing and treating those found COVID-19 positive. The point to emphasise here – and the media did not sufficiently do this – is what health experts across the world maintain: that contracting COVID-19 cannot be seen as somebody’s fault, everyone who falls ill is a victim, and targeting them undermines the larger effort. Misjudgments and inappropriate conduct of religious and political leaders (‘Shivraj Singh Chouhan Sworn in as Madhya Pradesh CM for Fourth Term’, March 23) need to be taken note of, and adequate responses framed, but stigma against ordinary people is the surest way to gum up any productive effort.

The twin headed hate-fake news industry fed off the Tablighi Jamaat, encouraged in no small measure by official bulletins put out by the Union health ministry. It was only after international outrage did joint secretary Lav Agarwal give up his partiality for putting the Tablighi Jamaat in the front and centre of his briefings. Meanwhile, we had a woman being turned away because of her community and losing her baby (‘Rajasthan: Baby Dies After Doctor Allegedly Refused to Treat Pregnant Muslim Woman’, April 5); a group of migrant workers threatened with lynching in the Northeast (‘Fear of Coronavirus: Migrant Labourers in Assam Narrowly Escape Mob Lynching’, April 4). For several days those who attended or were thought to have attended the Tablighi Jamaat assembly became persons of interest for the policing media. Every move each one made came under scrutiny and was often reported with obscene exaggeration and blatant falsehood (‘Tablighi Jamaat Members Did Not Defecate in Open After Being Refused Non-Veg Food’, April 8). Zee TV had to withdraw one of its stories (‘Police Says Zee News Report on Medical Workers, Tablighi Jamaat Members Being Attacked Is False’, April 7). The country’s largest circulating Hindu newspaper, Dainik Jagran, even devised a crossword, presumably to entertain potential vigilantes sitting idle at home (‘Corona Crossword’: Dainik Bhaskar Attempts to Communalise COVID-19 Pandemic’, April 8, first published in Newslaundry).

Also Read: While the World Fights COVID-19, Indians are Busy Communalising It

Freewheeling unadulterated hate does not remain confined to their core targets. As we are witnessing, there is a decided coarsening of reactions from the public. The recent past has seen attacks on medical personnel (‘Madhya Pradesh: Two Doctors Hurt in Stone Pelting During Coronavirus Tracking’, April 2); on people from the Northeast (‘Mumbai: Biker Spits on Manipuri Woman’, April 8); on the LGBTQ community (‘Coronavirus Has Compounded the Ostracisation of LGBTQ Community’, April 6) and in fact on anyone seen to be not conforming (‘Haryana: Dalit Family Attacked Over ‘Dispute’ on Adhering to PM’s #9pm9minutes Call’, April 10).

This crisis is telling us a great deal about us – as a society and as media – and what we have become.

People wearing face maks ride motorcycles as a municipal vehicle decontaminates a road during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of COVID-19, in Chennai, April 9, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/P. Ravikumar

Impact of lockdown on ordinary lives

In these times, when the world seems upside down, there is a strong whiff of nonsense in the air – and nonsense reminds one of Edward Lear, who seemed to have anticipated, two centuries ago, not just the coronavirus but the police and bureaucratic action it inspires:

…they said, ‘If you sneeze,
You might damage the trees…”

My mail box had missives that would have seemed utterly nonsensical even a few short weeks ago. Like this one from Dewangi Sharma: “My friend and my father, including several others, have been beaten up by the police for being outside their homes during the period of lockdown in the country. I would like to bring this to your attention that the police officers first attack the civilians before asking them what brings them on the road. My friend was hit by a police lathi on the back when he had gone out to deliver an important parcel through Speedpost while my dad is the owner of a medical shop. Although he wasn’t thrashed, probably because of his age, he saw some youngsters being beaten by the police. I believe this is an important story that needs to be brought to the fore to hold these officials accountable. They are supposed to do their duty and help the citizens in these trying times, not make life more difficult for them. Today my father is afraid to go out on the road to open his medical shop.”

Then there is this appeal from Quentin Richardson: “I am a British national stuck in Cochin during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been here since January 23rd. I rented a room in Kaloor and have been here for about 2 months, well before the lockdown. My return flight from Bangalore on the March 22 was cancelled on the 19th March. I returned to the room in Kaloor on the 20th of March. I was screened at Cochin airport and passed. On the March 21, I went to the Government Medical College, Ernakulam, for a test to allay fear of local residents that I was a COVID-19 carrier. The National Institute of Virology, Kerala, returned a Negative test for any corona virus. (There is no specific test for COVID-19.) I have been in quarantine for 19 days (at the time of writing) despite my test being negative. I need to buy supplies, food, water, etc. I also need to pay the rent which means a visit to an ATM to obtain the funds to do so. Mr Modi has said that leaving lockdown for necessary supplies is allowed. The Kerala police have told me to stay in my room. Their best suggestion was that I entrust my credit card to someone and get them to make the withdrawal. Pure insanity. I feel that this is a decision based on race. Effectively I am being imprisoned because I am not Indian.”

Also Read: List Suggests 254 Indian Pilgrims in Iran Have Tested Positive for COVID-19

Meanwhile, the J&K Students Association, a body of Kashmiri students outside the union territory, demanded the immediate evacuation of Kashmiri students stranded in various cities across the country. The students, it notes, are facing hardships due to the strict lockdown, and this includes running short of money, food, and essential commodities. It wants the central government to take concrete measures to address their woes. Some of these students are in a state of mental depression, and are worrying about their parents and families in the Kashmir Valley who are facing the threat of the virus.


The Wire’s coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat

Some irate readers expressed their irritation with The Wire’s coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat issue. Writes M. Hasan Jowher, president of Society for Promoting Rationality, Ahmedabad: “The Wire’s credibility emerges from its persistence in telling the truth, and doing so courageously. This reputation cannot be frittered away by not telling it when a section of Muslims are found to be in grievous error. The Tableeghi fiasco at Markaz in Delhi was an act of serious criminal neglect and it must be nailed — especially by Muslims, so I am doing my duty in writing this.” A long piece accompanying this mail could not be used here because of space constraints.

This mail was followed by one from Amit Singh, who expresses his disappointment over the Wire’s coverage in fairly unvarnished language. He argues that the Tablighi Jamaat “worked like human bomb to spread the Covid 19 in the country” and adds, “Shame on you guys…You have proved again that for you only one particular community matters.”

A paramedic uses an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of a police officer alongside a road during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of COVID-19 in Ahmedabad, April 9, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave


Dr Mostaid Ahmed, an assistant professor of The Neotia University, West Bengal, says that he is “an avid and everyday reader of your acclaimed platform since its inception”, and is especially struck by the “wide spectrum of knowledge” that The Wire generates. He has, however, a suggestion that would enhance the user-friendliness of the website: “As a reader, I always look for the articles that are published on a certain specific date and this option is missing from your website. Such an option would make available to the reader all the articles that were put out on a particular date. He goes on to explain his quandary: “Currently I use Google, deploying the syntax ‘site:thewire.in “01/APR/2020” ’ for viewing all articles that are published with the date 01/APR/2020. But there is one problem here — the auxiliary websites ‘science.thewire.in’ & ‘livewire.thewire.in’ use different formats such as ‘01/01/2020’ and ‘April 1, 2020’. That makes tracing the articles published on the auxiliary websites with the searching syntax ‘site:thewire.in “01/APR/2020” ’ in Google difficult. So I would also like to request that all timestamps be exactly the same across all webpages within the domain ‘thewire.in’ so that searching would be easier.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in