Ever since the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic ripped through India, three words have dominated public conversations: ‘Western media bias’. The villain in the room this time isn’t Pakistan, JNU, or urban naxal. It is Western media, and its intense coverage of the Covid carnage, funeral pyres, queues for oxygen cylinders, harassed patients, and overworked doctors.
But most of all, it is the usage of photographs of the funeral fires, shot up-close or aerially, that has enraged some in the Indian commentariat. The charges range from Orientalism to the Western desire to see India fail by choosing to focus on ‘bhooka-nanga’ tragedies.
Let me tell you as someone who has worked in The Washington Post for nearly three decades, this is the oldest cliché thrown at Western media by middle-class Indians, government officials, and even by Indians who have lived in the West for decades.
The pictures do the talking
The most circulated conspiracy theory on WhatsApp and Twitter is that the American papers do not cover death and tragedy the same way they are covering Indian Covid fatalities. This is completely untrue. You believe it readily because it fits that deeply nursed complex of yours about how the world is plotting to keep India down. Instead of ‘doing the work’ of questioning poor planning, public complacency, and distracted politicians, you find it far easier to identify the enemy outside. It also plays into the matter of hiding family shame from outside — ‘Ghar ki baat ghar mein rehne do’.
I'm not going to RT the CNN video from the hospital in India; you can argue all you want as to whether it's a net benefit to raise awareness; what I see is that the respect for privacy the US media afforded to hospitalized Americans was not deemed necessary for patients in India.
— Emily Moin, MD MBE (@eemoin) May 5, 2021
Here are examples below of how the American media has covered their own Covid tragedies and that of others’ too.
In these hyperlinked articles, you will find a photograph of a corpse’s foot sticking out of the sheet; another of grave diggers, a body being lowered into an empty grave; body bags being U-hauled; inside an ICU; a morgue full of bodies wrapped up in plastic bags; refrigerator trucks used to store bodies; ambulances lined up; and one of a daughter applying makeup and nail paint to her dead mother’s corpse at a mortuary.
A final pedicure for her mother, who died of Covid last week. Working around the toe tag. A heartbreaking culmination of a lifetime of love. pic.twitter.com/kh4cVb1uht
— Scott Wilson (@PostScottWilson) January 13, 2021
See here the video in the following story where they are showing mass burials at Hart Island, New York. These were not easy for the American readers to view either. And here is a story about Covid deaths in Detroit. Photographs show faces of the dead in the caskets with the mourners. Don’t believe it when you read a WhatsApp forward saying faces of American corpses are not shown.
You know why these BBC Morons did not report on Mass Burials in New York because there is HIPAA Law in US where they can be prosecuted. Section 297 of IPC also says trespassing Burial or Cremation grounds to hurt feelings is a criminal offence. https://t.co/PmO19iBRnM
— Navroop Singh (@NavroopSingh_) May 7, 2021
Then there was a tweet that said that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules in the US prohibit journalists from entering hospitals, but members of foreign media still walk into Indian hospitals. Read the rules here before you believe the tweet:
“Question: A patient called me and asked me to interview him about his experience in the hospital. After I did the interview, the hospital accused me of violating HIPAA because I did not obtain written authorization. Was I wrong?
Answer: No. Reporters are not “covered entities” under HIPAA and therefore cannot violate HIPAA (unless they obtain health information under false pretenses). Reporters do not need written authorization from the patients they interview. Most hospitals require that reporters and photographers be accompanied by a hospital representative when in patient areas.”
And not just India, the American media covered the 2020 Covid-19 surge in Italy and Brazil the same way.
See here the photograph of rows and rows of freshly dug graves at a mass burial in Brazil. In fact, the aerial sights of Brazil are no different from those of India’s. Just a different type of burial, that’s all. And the satellite images of freshly dug burial trenches in Iran. And see the Reuters photograph of a patient inside an Italian ICU.
People are such hypocrites.. we cry over media showing burning pyres.. why did you keep quiet when Brazil burial graves were shown? Its always when its your backyard that you wake up.#Shame #Brazil #crematorium #CovidDeaths pic.twitter.com/rBJ0d93NV3
— kalika abhyankar (@onlykalika) May 3, 2021
No double standard
To say there is a double standard in Western coverage of Covid-19 shows that either you are just plain ignorant, or a propagandist, or inhabit only WhatsApp forwards.
Even the Narendra Modi government has been more concerned about its image abroad than fixing the reality on the ground and managing the once-in-a-generation crisis that will transform India for years.
On the other hand, journalists working in foreign media have been bitterly attacked on social media for their coverage. Reuters Chief Photographer Danish Siddiqui’s drone photograph of the funeral pyres did not show any faces. He had tweeted: “Documenting the deaths is a delicate task, balancing showing the human cost of the virus with preserving the dignity of the subject.”
Documenting the deaths is a delicate task, balancing showing the human cost of the virus with preserving the dignity of the subject.
In this case, Narayan's family, who were angered by a death they saw as preventable, were adamant his story be told. https://t.co/zNCSBwSpQd pic.twitter.com/jyxrjgKwPF
— Danish Siddiqui (@dansiddiqui) April 26, 2021
If this is the biggest human tragedy of our times, then journalists have to show it, tell it, write it. There is no nationalism involved in journalism. I have covered earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, and bomb blasts. Each one was more gutting than the other to witness. There was no room for bias. Each dead body matters.
Finally, I can tell you this: foreign media rarely writes articles that the Indian media hasn’t already covered. In fact, Indian media coverage often serves as a starting point or kunji for foreign media reporters. The images of the Covid deaths in The Washington Post, The New York Times, BBC, and Reuters that made you flinch and outrage – Indian media ran similar ones as well.
So then, ask yourself the real question: Are you just embarrassed that you are not the global superpower you thought you were?
Rama Lakshmi is Opinion Editor at ThePrint. She was the India correspondent for The Washington Post for 27 years, and won the American Society of News Editors Award in 2005 for her coverage of the tsunami disaster. Views are personal.