India COVID-19 deaths climb again as global aid flown in. PHOTO: REUTERS/India

INDIA’S top television journalist was busy recording the sufferings of people at hospitals and cremation grounds during the second wave of the coronavirus when she received news of the death of her 80-year old father.

“I myself became a story and experienced all that I had been reporting about people. As if I was now on the other side of the camera,” said Barkha Dutt.

Like everyone, she had to fight for an ambulance, oxygen cylinder, beg for a bed at the hospital, despite all her connections, and then ultimately for a place to cremate her father.

“Three other families were jostling for that spot to pay last respects to their departed ones. I was reporting this day and out. The national mourning had become personal mourning,” she said.

Similarly, when Suhasini Raj, a journalist working with The New York Times office in New Delhi, was writing a story, she got the call that her family fell sick and her father-in-law’s oxygen level was dropping.

“While tracking and writing story, I had to joggle between to enquire about health and arrange hospital beds and oxygen for family members,” she said at an online meeting organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia (FCCSA).

There are countless stories showing despair among Indian journalists, attempting to combine covering the second deadly wave of the pandemic and attending to themselves as well as family members.

Stories of journalists contracting the infection while performing professional duties are coming from all over India. According to provisional figures released by the Delhi-based Institute of Perception Studies (IPS), 77 journalists have lost their lives in April alone, since the onset of the second wave of the pandemic.

That implies that on average, two journalists have died every day in the past month. During the past year, 128 scribes have died after contracting the virus.

Taking a toll on journalists

Media channels and organizations have been working non-stop since the onset of the pandemic in India, trying to collate and verify the actual number of deaths.

“Journalists are not only reporting on the national health crisis but confronting it, daily, which has taken a toll on them,” said Kota Neelima, author and founder of IPS.

Kalyan Barooah, the bureau chief of the Assam Tribune, and his journalist wife, Nilakshi, died a few days ago within 24 hours at a hospital in Delhi after contracting COVID-19. The couple leaves behind a teenage daughter. The same day Anirban Bora of The Economic Times also lost his battle with the virus.

A day earlier, television journalist Rohit Sardana, 41, who tested positive for coronavirus, passed away. Kakoli Bhattacharya, working with the New Delhi office of the British daily The Guardian also died.

As many as 30 journalists have succumbed to the infectious disease in India’s largest province of Uttar Pradesh, followed by Telangana reporting 19 deaths, including veteran Hyderabad-based newsman K. Amaranath, an office-bearer of Indian Journalists Union (IJU).

Raj said that nobody was ready for such a catastrophe in India, where, as per official figures, the daily coronavirus tally crossed the grim milestone of 400,000 and 3,500 deaths on Saturday. She said it was a challenge to concentrate on reporting and then not to think of family.

A journalist received news of the death of his wife when he was in the field reporting about the lack of oxygen supply in hospitals.

Difficult phase

Vikas Pandey, India editor of the BBC’s digital platform, described covering the pandemic as the most difficult phase in the history of journalism in India. He said leading coverage and then getting calls from friends and family members to arrange beds, oxygen supplies, and medicine is taking a psychological toll on journalists.

“We have reported in the past difficult phases, bomb blasts, terror attacks. But this is something above all of them, a very difficult phase,” said Pandey, who lost a cousin to the virus.

Mahes Langa, reporting for leading national daily The Hindu, from the western Indian state of Gujarat, said it was stressful getting calls from people asking for help to get access to ventilators. He said that just in one week, four top-ranking journalists died in the state.

He complained that the authenticity of data has become a big issue during the second wave. He said during the first wave that swept the country last year, officials and hospital authorities were forthcoming with data and other details.

“Authenticity of data is now a big issue. The official data does not reflect the ground situation. The officials are also not accessible and forthcoming now,” he said.

But he said that social media has come to the rescue of journalists like him.

“In absence of social media, we would have been in dark. We get leads from social media and then verify them before converting it into a piece of news,” said Langa.

Unique and serious challenge

During the past year, Kashmir Life, a leading Srinagar-based popular weekly, had to close its newsroom thrice because of infections. Currently, all staff, including Chief Editor Masood Hussain, are in quarantine, having contracted the virus while covering the second wave.

Hussain said during the first wave last year, his team managed an interview with Dr. Adul Gani Ahanger, the director of the Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar.

“We noticed that his aides on our right and left were coughing. Two days later, both of them tested positive. A week later, a senior doctor who had facilitated the interview also reported positive,” he said, forcing him to order the closure of the newsroom.

In another incident, a young reporter, Khalid Bashir Gura, came to the office with excitement because he managed an exclusive interview with a Kashmiri student who returned home from Italy, dodging the scan at the Srinagar airport. The reporter, in excitement, was shaking hands without realizing the consequences.

Hussain, who spent days at the intensive care unit, said the infection has made his office live with the crisis.

Manish Gupta, president of FCCSA believed that these were tiring times for journalists.

“The second wave of COVID-19 has thrown a unique and serious challenge to media that it had never seen before. Journalists are also human beings, get affected by psychological, physical, and emotional trauma that haunts them and affects their families,” he said.

–  Anadolu Agency

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