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How ThePrint courageously covered the Covid battleground and won the IPI award

Everyone who went to the field admitted that though the experience was harrowing, they had become better journalists, perhaps even better people because of it.

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“A new body arrives every 10 minutes’’. In April 2021, Jyoti Yadav found that the number of funerals in Lucknow exceeded the total number of Covid deaths for the day in the entire state. What explained this gaping gap? She decided to investigate.

Soniya Agrawal and Praveen Jain visited six crematoriums in Ahmedabad where families waited for hours before relatives who had died of Covid were cremated. The bereaved were angry: the deaths had been registered as “deaths by illness’’, not Covid. Agrawal realised something was wrong.

Jain saw ambulances and cars crowded outside an Ahmedabad hospital. Patients lay inside them, some close to death. The hospital had no room for them. Jain knew what he had to do. He reached for his camera.

A conversation with an anganwadi worker in Bhopal, led Fatima Khan to an unusual and disturbing discovery: The Covid restrictions, which had limited the numbers at any function, had increased child marriages. Why? It was cheaper.

Photojournalist Manisha Mondal doggedly stalked the virus in Delhi hospitals, morgues, and crematoriums. Everywhere she met with grief and despair. “I don’t have any adjectives to describe the sadness,’’ she said. Instead, she expressed her feelings in heartbreaking photographs. 

Aneesha Bedi was isolated at home due to Covid. It was the height of the second wave when the lack of oxygen was a major issue. Ferreting around, Bedi learned that due to bickering between Delhi’s AAP government and the Lieutenant Governor’s office, the panel appointed to investigate the shortage of oxygen in the capital never saw the light of day.

And in Raipur, Suraj Bisht saw trucks lined up outside hospitals and burial sites: with not enough ambulances or hearses to transport the dead, they had been pressed into service. In one of his granular photographs, you can see the face of a woman inside a body bag being ‘offloaded’ from a truck…

These are just a few of the stories the journalists reported for ThePrint as they travelled through India during the second wave in 2021. Some of their work helped the public, others were noticed by governments, and a few annoyed civic authorities, but their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic earned them the prestigious International Press Institute Awards for Excellence in Journalism (India).

So this month’s Readers’ Editor column is dedicated to ThePrint’s coronavirus coverage, especially during the second wave.

Five of the seven journalists recognised by the IPI were on their first job in journalism. Five of them were also women. Most of them in their 20s. Forget a pandemic, the young journalists had barely reported on anything before. But here they were, sallying forth to report, firsthand, on the virus that had almost brought the world to a halt.

Other journalists with ThePrint, many equally young and inexperienced,  would fan out across the country – to Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and the Northeast.

Eventually, ThePrint’s correspondents went to almost every state in the country — a remarkable achievement for an online news portal into its third year when the first lockdowns came in March 2020. Thus, the IPI Award to the seven journalists should be seen as an acknowledgment of all the (ground) work done by the entire team at ThePrint.

It also recognises the core values of journalism: ThePrint’s coronavirus stories gave us news and views – they informed, explained the reality encountered by reporters, and tried to encompass the entire picture.

Editor-in-Chief and Chairman of ThePrint, Shekhar Gupta, believes the IPI award underlines three aspects of journalism: the value of field reporting, “where you go looking for the story’’, the “importance’’ of photojournalism – the team of three photojournalists has been recognised by the IPI, and, thirdly, what the combination of young, talented, curious, and energetic reporters and experienced, large-hearted editors can achieve.


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The constant fear

It was a once-in-a-lifetime story, Y.P. Rajesh, Managing Editor, ThePrint, told me, with an “unprecedented level of complexity” made even more singular by the constant reminder of each individual’s vulnerability to the virus and the exigencies of the situation: lockdowns, work-from-home, worried families, governments in disarray, health infrastructure in shambles, and travel stalled between first and second gear.

During the first wave, people hunkered down, stayed at home, and did what work was possible between mopping floors, cooking meals, and cleaning. Journalists were no different. Most reporting on the virus – the migrants, the economic hardship, and the disease itself – came from Delhi. ThePrint had a skeletal team in the office, whereas many media organisations worked entirely from home.

By the time the second wave swept across India and the world, the ThePrint team had been largely vaccinated, and was the braver for it. The reporting staff and senior editors returned to office, and volunteers were asked to travel out of Delhi.

Many put up their hands but none realised how taxing the assignment would be. Logistically, it was a nightmare. Few flights or trains were operational, roads were the only route open, but crossing state borders was sometimes impossible with Covid restrictions. There would be endless car journeys along potholed roads.

At the end of the day, there was nowhere to stay – hotels were closed; there was little to eat – restaurants and roadside dhabas were shut. There was the reluctance of officials, hospital staff, and burial site workers to reveal genuine numbers, but there were too many people eager to share their experiences. And finally, there was the constant fear of catching Covid as the journalists travelled to hotspots and densely populated areas.


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The persistent collision with death

Physically and emotionally, Covid exacted its price. For Photo Editor Praveen Jain, “This was the most difficult assignment ever. I have covered earthquakes, riots, and Kargil, but here everyone was possibly carrying a Corona bomb’’.

Jain, along with correspondent Simrin Sirur, was one of the first at ThePrint to travel out of Delhi in 2020 and contract the virus while covering Gujarat. By the end middle of 2022, almost the entire editorial staff had developed Covid, some twice over.

At another level, the journalists were shocked by the loss of life they witnessed wherever they went – remember, most were young. “I wasn’t prepared to see so much death,’’ recalled Soniya Agrawal. She spoke for all of them: “It was the same story everywhere: deaths, visits to hospitals, cremation grounds, and grieving families who want to tell their stories…’’ said Fatima Khan who is now a senior correspondent at The Quint.

“I was on the road for 45 days at a stretch – I don’t think I have processed those 45 days yet,” she added, “I was quite simply overwhelmed,’’ Mondal admitted. “In the silence, I would hear howling, crying.’’

Jyoti Yadav travelled extensively through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. She says she “broke down many times’’. She was also harassed by drunken men on a scooty, and she thinks she had Covid along the way – she survived on coconut water.

Back home, families worried, which was a major worry for all the journalists. Parents would message constantly, share health tips, and demand frequent replies – just to know their kids were safe. And the journalists had to isolate themselves as far as possible from ageing relatives. “The story felt personal – I had Covid and my entire family at home got infected – it became more than just a story,’’ revealed Aneesha Bedi, who joined WHO after leaving ThePrint.

Agrawal’s family was upset that she volunteered for Covid duty. “Only a YouTube commendation for my work saved me from my parents,’’ she said, laughing.

“My family was constantly worrying. It was difficult on a shoot, to see bodies and people cry. You ask yourself, ‘What am I shooting and why?’ But I had to do my duty as a journalist,’’ added Suraj Bisht.

The constant collision with death would make the journalists look it in the eye without blinking. Agrawal said it “hardened’’ her. She learnt to write about it more “sensitively’’. Mondal thinks grief taught her the relevance of “empathy’’ and made her “a better person’’.  But others felt, in Bedi’s words, “so numb… I couldn’t sleep, and forgot how to detach myself from my work. How sudden can death be…’’


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A turning point in life

What of the stories they told? When the experiences are almost identical, irrespective of where they travel, the journalists are often blinded by the human drama unfolding before their eyes. So many stories were sent back from the field about hospitals, funeral sites, shortages of medication, oxygen, and hospital beds. So many photographs were shot of heartbroken families, funeral pyres, and bodies, bodies, and more bodies. Editors in Delhi had to constantly remind reporters to look for different angles to what had become the new normal.

I read many of ThePrint’s Covid stories, and what struck me was the attention to detail, the effort to look for trends and patterns, and to locate individual stories within collective experiences. This was done by using data, and telling all sides of a story.

“(We had to look for) the unique stories, to pause and zoom out of the immediate tragedy,’’ recalled Khan. And they did zoom out. In her Hamirpur story on bodies in the river, she wrote on how this had damaged the fishermen’s livelihood.

In a village of Andhra Pradesh, Mondal found a teenager living in a tree. It was his makeshift home that isolated him from his family. In Kashmir, ThePrint did a story on people being convinced to take vaccine shots only after they saw the Army taking them. In Manipur, ThePrint found the Church helping to curb vaccine hesitancy, while tribals refused to take Covid tests in MP’s Panna.

From Andhra Pradesh came the story of a ‘miracle drug’, and from Delhi came news of a rapid surge in anti-depressants…

Everyone on the field admitted that though the experience was harrowing, they had become better journalists, perhaps even better people, because of it. “It was a turning point in life,’’ is how Bedi described it.

Yes, but did their work make a difference to the people they wrote about? Most of them thought it did – sometimes tangibly but “even if it was in a small way’’, said Yadav. In all this, let’s not forget the role of the editors in Delhi, who had to do a lot of hand holding – on the phone – and the editing team who patiently reworked and rewrote the copies, refashioned the stories that you and I read.


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Learning about the virus

ThePrint’s efforts were outstanding. It was one of the very few media organisations which sent out so many reporters for such long periods – Yimkumla Longkumer and Angana Chakraborti were in the Northeast for three months.

Now, let’s place ThePrint’s efforts in a larger contest. Go back and remember: The virus went viral and we all paid for it. Since 2020, over 6.5 million people worldwide have died of Covid and its complications.

I had Covid, so have most of my family and my friends. That’s true of most people: each one of us retains memories of the quiet fear that seeped through us and the silent cities under several lockdowns.

We shut out the world, locked ourselves inside our homes and rooms. We checked our oxygen levels, our temperature, our pulse like trained nurses; we cleaned surfaces, we cleaned food, packets, counters, and our hands – clean, clean, and clean till the skin peeled off.   

Never before had we been so confused or felt so alone and isolated. Except, we were not alone – we got by with a little help from our family and friends – and of course science.

Besides, we had the media – the electronic print media (no one in their right minds would go near a newspaper!), news portals like ThePrint, television news, and, of course, social media.

When the only ‘visit’ you paid was to the hospital, the media was our constant companion and mentor. It told us everything from ‘thali bajao’ to vaccine hesitancy, from the daily Covid number of cases, deaths, and recoveries to the latest medicines. It filtered and mediated the avalanche of scientific and medical knowledge that descended upon us, explaining it in layman’s language – without ever forgetting that at its core, this was a human interest story that was personal for everyone.

Let the last word go to the senior most journalist who ventured forth in search of the virus as it travelled the country. Praveen Jain said, “I am proud of the entire team, those who went out were bold, courageous, and they never said no.’’

Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to readers.editor@theprint.in

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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