As the COVID-19 crisis has exploded in India in recent weeks, the Twitter account of The Press Club of India has refashioned itself into an ad hoc publisher of obituaries for members of the profession.
The world has been increasingly watching in horror as something akin to a humanitarian crisis unfolds in the country, where the numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the coronavirus mount at a staggering rate. The current surge in India has pushed the country’s number of total cases since the pandemic began to more than 19.5 million as of the time of this writing — second only to the US, per researchers at Johns Hopkins University. More than 215,000 have died there, and the country is adding on average more than 3,000 Covid-19 deaths every day, though the presumption is that those totals vastly undercount the true reality. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, not even 2% of India’s adult population of 940 million has been fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
“Every other day, we hear news of a member’s passing,” Amrita Madhukalya, a member of the press club’s managing committee, told me. “As part of the Twitter team, we know that the digital communication is important, especially since the Club is closed. Delhi is under lockdown right now.
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“As soon as we get to hear of someone’s passing, we try and source details of their lives and then their pictures. In most cases, colleagues always come forward to help. The point is that we do not miss key details, and we do not get it wrong.” The club itself has more than 4,000 members journalists, and it is not uncommon to have days when the club tweets out multiple messages of condolence in memory of journalists who’ve died from Covid-19.
“It is gutting to see young lives go away in the blink of an eye. There are members who leave behind young kids. A popular member was 41, and he leaves behind two young daughters. Another member, who was a key member of the Club’s managing committee over the years, left yesterday. He followed his wife, who had passed a day earlier. The couple leave behind a daughter.”
While the surge there is being fueled partly by the spread of more virulent strains of Covid-19, India’s journalists told me that what’s happening right now is the result of a perfect storm of tragedy and self-inflicted errors. It’s a combination of low vaccination rates, hospitals running low on key supplies like oxygen, and wide swaths of the populace not being put under lockdown until it’s been too late, even as mass political rallies and unmasked political leaders have sent a message that a crisis is not at hand.
Dinakar Peri, a defense correspondent with the daily newspaper The Hindu, told me that the problem has been compounded by the supply of things like hospital beds, oxygen, ICU space, and life-saving therapeutics running dry. To the point that, in their desperation, people are often turning to journalists like him as a last resort, to help them find what they need. “Filing stories is one thing,” he told me, “but we are spending so much time trying to find any leads to beds, oxygen, ICU, ambulances, medicines. People think journalists have contacts, so they reach out and ask if we can pull a connection. In (most) cases we try, but it’s no luck or help arrived too late. The person is no more.”
I talked to a handful of journalists in the country in recent days, and while they gave me a just-the-facts summation of what’s happening there, those details cannot hide the fact that a tragically high number of journalists themselves are also succumbing to Covid-19 while trying to document what the country is experiencing. And that reality is yet another piece of evidence revealing how badly the leadership at all levels is failing.
For example, a journalist in the northern India city of Lucknow named Vinay Srivastava recently contracted Covid-like symptoms. In his frustration at being unable to obtain medical care, he started tweeting at local officials and included his falling oxygen levels. He died a few weeks ago. He was one of more than 121 journalists in India who’ve died as a result of Covid-19, according to the Press Emblem Campaign, a media group based in Switzerland.
Others include Kakoli Bhattacharya, a 51-year-old news assistant for The Guardian who died in Delhi. The family of Rohitash Gupta, a 36-year-old reporter in the Indian city of Bareilly, said he died at home after being unable to secure a hospital bed.
Peri told me that among the factors that allowed the virus to spread to this degree in India is many people not wearing masks in public. “Call it fatigue or callousness,” he said, unsure of whether people are simply fed up or if it’s more of a case of misinformation trickling down from the top. As far as the latter point, he does add that “the leadership encouraged (this behavior) in many ways, rather than correcting it — and definitely “declared victory over corona too early.”
Purva Chitnis, a correspondent for NDTV in Mumbai, told me in no uncertain terms that this has been “the most difficult phase in my nearly 6-year journalism career.” She told me about being haunted by the “desperate cries of people for medicines” and oxygen masks, as well as reporting from crematoriums and burial grounds.
“Seeing the dead up close was heart-wrenching. To put it even personally, I myself, along with my family, got infected in March. I was anxious back then, but today I would like to thank my stars that my family got infected when resources were available. But just one month later, things exploded — and how.
“Many people are not getting the hospital care that they deserve … Without getting political, as a journalist I feel the accountability for this has to be fixed. The approach to this was completely top-to-bottom. And in India, being a diverse nation, this approach failed completely.”