Media's failure in contending with second COVID-19 wave has left Indians paying the price

The systemic lapses that exacerbated the scale of the second COVID-19 wave would arguably not have happened in a country with a freer media that was doing the job it is meant to do.

Samrat April 30, 2021 13:26:29 IST
Media's failure in contending with second COVID-19 wave has left Indians paying the price

Representational image. AP

Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.

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The second COVID-19 wave is a tragedy on an epic scale playing out in India. The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed 2,30,000 people around the Indian Ocean. The present COVID tsunami feels that way, except the wave is hitting only India, in slow motion, invisibly.

How did it get so bad?

Scientists will work out the medical reasons by and by. It is likely that a mutation of the virus played a part. At present, this is mostly guesswork, because there is insufficient data available, but eventually we will get to know. There is, however, also a governance reason. It relates to the flow of information: This disaster would not have happened if systems of information flow had been working robustly.

It is clear that a second wave was always anticipated. Scientists all along also kept saying that the virus would mutate. The government of India was officially informed about the likelihood of an impending second wave, and the lack of preparation to handle it. This was reflected in a report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare in November 2020, as reported recently in Newslaundry.

Among other things, the report had specifically warned against possible super-spreader events, pointed out the shortage of adequate hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, and said there was a “need to ensure that the oxygen inventory is in place and oxygen prices are controlled”. It is painfully obvious now that none of this was heeded.

The failure of the parliamentary, democratic system of advice and feedback was one level of system failure. The second level was when big media failed to acknowledge the growing problem until it was too late, and even then, only began to report it reluctantly under public pressure. It is not as though the problem happened overnight.

As far back as the second week of February there were already reports from Maharashtra about the rising tide of COVID cases and deaths. No one seems to have paid them any attention. Instead, there was great excitement in the media over tweets by Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, the farmers’ protests, and then the elections in five states. During this period, Holi was celebrated with great gusto, the Kumbh Mela was inaugurated with fanfare, and several huge poll rallies were organised daily. COVID in Maharashtra was treated as a political opportunity to attack the state government. The fact that it could herald the start of the second COVID wave was not taken seriously.

This would arguably not have happened in a country with a freer media that was doing the job it is meant to do. As engineers know, every control system needs a feedback loop. Think of the country as one vast and complex unit, with the administrative machinery working as the control system. The free media acts like thousands of sensors that report what is going wrong anywhere in the country, in close to real time. When instead of taking the inputs from the media as a basis for corrective action, you start suppressing the negative feedback and forcing the sensors to sing cheerful tunes, you’ve lost your feedback loop. The problems will continue to crop up, but now, they will not be noticed until they blow up. The diagnosis in the end will be “systems failed”. We should also ask, “Why did systems fail?”

Indians are collectively paying a very heavy price for the insistence on turning journalism into Public Relations. It is true that the media tends to report bad news more than good, but that is what it is meant to do, and that is what makes it useful. Extraordinary good news is also celebrated in the media with great enthusiasm, and this was the case even a decade or a century ago. For instance, there was no lack of laudatory articles when India won the Cricket World Cup in 1983 or when Amartya Sen won his Nobel Prize in 1998. They did not require phone calls from political sources to get positive coverage in newspapers.

The state emblem of the Indian state is “Satyameva Jayate”, an aphorism from the Mundaka Upanishad which means “truth alone triumphs”. A false image that “all is well” was cultivated for the past several years. In this the media played a decisive role. Like the governments at the centre and in several states, it thus failed in its duties. A public blinded by this false image, with many among them driven to frenzy by twisted notions of patriotism and religion, is now left literally gasping for breath.

The truth about COVID, brushed under the carpet in the relentless quest for positive coverage, has exploded in our faces as the flames from thousands of burning funeral pyres.

 

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