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Journalists must not resist Covid test. Let’s not become the story ourselves

Journalists may have protective gear, but social distancing is an impossibility — whether we are reporting from hospitals or hostels or shelters.

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At least 80 journalists in Mumbai and Chennai have so far tested positive for coronavirus based on the 265 samples that were collected this week. Even though this is alarming, it shouldn’t come as a shock. Journalists on the ground — reporters, photographers and camerapersons —  are merely equipped with masks, gloves, and sanitisers, even when reporting from Covid-19 hotspots like Bhilwara, Indore, Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz, or from testing laboratories, shelter homes, and containment zones. As essential service providers — declared so by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and considering the nature of their job, it is difficult for mediapersons to maintain social distance. The risk of getting coronavirus exists whenever journalists are out on the field.

It is therefore crucial that mediapersons undergo routine tests for Covid-19. This is why the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi has now set up a free testing centre for journalists. Karnataka’s medical education minister K. Sudhakar has also announced that the state government will soon arrange Covid-19 tests for journalists.

But what makes matters worse for media persons is that they could be carrying the coronavirus and not show any symptoms — that is, be asymptomatic carriers. According to the Union health ministry, “80 per cent of coronavirus patients (in India) are asymptomatic or show mild symptoms”. In fact, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had stated that most of the 53 journalists who tested Covid-19 positive were asymptomatic until the time their samples were collected and reports released.

The Modi government, in collaboration with state governments, must ensure free and regular tests for all journalists across the country and not just for those with symptoms or those in Mumbai or Delhi or Karnataka. Journalists must not become a risk factor for themselves, their families, their colleagues and the people they meet. Merely screening them by checking temperatures outside the offices will no longer work.

Landlords and PG-owners are already discriminating against journalist tenants — putting in strict, needless rules, which are making it difficult for them to do their jobs.

Mediapersons, just like health workers, are being brave and doing their jobs. But they need better protective gear and should not oppose the government’s test offers. In fact, journalists should voluntarily test themselves. Their sense of heroic self will not be diminished by it.

Also read: Delhi to start Covid-19 testing for media persons after 53 Mumbai journalists test positive

Reporting from hotspots and clusters  

While reporting on the Covid crisis, it is not always possible to maintain a safe distance, and one can catch the virus even when following all protocols. On the road, people offer us food and tea. We buy fruit and eat. There are no hotels or restaurants open, so journalists on the field make do with what they can.

Last week, eight healthcare officials of Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Hospital tested positive for Covid-19. A couple of weeks ago, my colleague and I had visited the hospital’s Covid testing facility to cover the entire procedure from sample collection to testing. We scanned the entire campus and spoke to multiple healthcare professionals.

Before that, when news about the Nizamuddin Markaz broke on 31 March, I was there on the ground reporting with many other journalists.

Moreover, while reporting from unchecked slum areas, which are cramped and hardly draw government attention, one can’t calculate the chances of getting infected because the spread of the coronavirus remains unprecedented. Two weeks ago, I had visited the jhuggis on the banks of river Yamuna. The entire cluster was left unattended and not once had the health officials visited it. As many as 15 people live in tiny huts, which makes social distancing impossible. They eat together, sleep together, use the same tubewell and have only two toilets to share. They told me that even if they have a temperature, they won’t tell the authorities for fear of being isolated from their family “in the name of corona(virus)”.

At a Delhi government registered shelter home in East Nizamuddin, which is a five-minute walk from the Markaz hotspot, we met 300 migrant workers who live together and are unable to practice social distancing. These migrant workers told us that no health check-ups had been conducted on them yet. While talking to them, it was impossible to keep a distance because the workers, in order to narrate their plight, had gathered around us.

Also read: Journalism in the time of corona: This is the biggest story of our lives


Medium shouldn’t become the message

It is the government’s and media houses’ responsibility to assure that journalists working on the ground are provided free masks and gloves, covers for equipment and sanitising facilities.

With increasing number of journalists testing positive for Covid-19, it is imperative that the Modi government urgently chalks out a nationwide plan with the state governments for setting up free coronavirus testing centres for all mediapersons because no matter what, the medium cannot become the message. That’s not ethical journalism.

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  1. Better journalists sit at home, like the rest, rather then going around infecting others just for the sake of generating fake news and meaningless opinion pieces. Nobody has died by not reading, hearing or seeing news. Anybody other then health workers, farmers, food suppliers, sanitation workers and utility service staff are not essential services. Only journalists have an inflated opinion about themselves. Time to get real.

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