Rebecca K Kits
Dimapur | May 2
While discharging their duties during the COVID-19 pandemic, scribes across the world have been afflicted by the deadly virus. According to the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), at least 1,200 journalists have died from the novel coronavirus since March 2020.
India has lost 121 working journalists to COVID-19 with the situation particularly alarming in the past two weeks, as at least 50 journalists have succumbed to the virus (an average of 3-5 persons every day), as per the PEC data.
In Nagaland, though COVID-19 casualties involving scribes have not been reported yet, a handful of them have been exposed to the infection.
After returning from a press briefing in 2020, Esther (Anchor, Hornbill TV) was informed that a COVID-19 positive case was detected from among the attendees in that briefing.
Subsequently, Esther along with all others present that day underwent tests and isolated for 14 days as precaution. “More than the fear of having contracted the virus, it was the fear of having infected our loved ones unknowingly,” Esther shared.
Fortunately Esther and the other journalists tested negative and resumed their duties after 14 days in isolation.
Esther’s experience is just one of the many cases where scribes in the State have been exposed to similar risks during the course of collecting and disseminating information during the pandemic.
At a time when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 situation, there is another fight at hand for journalists.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the first 3 months of 2020, nearly 6, 000 people around the globe were hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation. During this period, researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19.
The infodemic—an overabundance of information (some accurate, some not) is spreading alongside the pandemic and journalists everywhere are faced with the challenge to turn the tide on false information during these crucial times.
‘Someone has to do it’
For Bendangchuba, a journalist from Nagaland, reporting events during the COVID-19 pandemic was a ‘call of duty’ he could not ignore.
“People rely on the information we provide. And if we were to opt for our own safety at a time of crisis, the news would stop reaching the people,” he shared. At a time when misinformation and rumors are spreading as fast as the virus, there is a need more than ever to disseminate facts and accurate reports, he added.
Staying with his family at home would mean putting them at risk too in case he came into contact with the virus during his job. Considering this factor, Bendang rented a house in Dimapur town to continue his work.
The pandemic is far from over and now when the world is reeling under a second wave, the need to keep people informed is even higher. “Someone has to do it,” Bendang said.
Recounting his experiences during the initial phase of the COVID-19 induced lockdown in the State, Dimapur Press Club President Filip Sumi said, “When returnees started arriving in the State in huge numbers last year, we were also overwhelmed. We were not given PPE suits, masks or gloves while covering those events yet, we were there like the rest of the frontline workers doing our job.”
While the needs of other frontline workers like food and water were taken care of by the government or sponsored by organizations, scribes had to make personal arrangements since they do not fall under the category of ‘notified frontline workers’, he added.
Amid the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, on April 15, the Editors Guild of India urged the Central government to declare journalists as frontline workers and prioritize their vaccination.
Similarly, Ranju Dodum, a journalist based in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, opined that a ‘safety net’ is required for news reporters as well as their families during the pandemic.
As per PEC data, effective protection measures and the progress of vaccination has resulted in the decline of journalists’ deaths in Europe and North America.
However, opinions remain divided on whether or not to categorize journalists as ‘frontliners’.
According to Imnatoshi Longkumer (DABA staff), frontline workers are those who must physically show up to their jobs, who face a variety of health risks in their workplaces. “Journalists are many times the first and often, the only link to health care for millions of people, capable of providing information to many life-saving interventions, Longkumer opined.
“Of course journalists are frontline workers!” Vinoka from Dimapur said. “They are the ones who go out in harm’s way to bring out the latest reports and stories, so that people are updated about the risk posed by this pandemic,” he added.
A district administration officer in Nagaland opined that, “They (Journalists) definitely should be considered as frontline workers as they are out on the field every day. It is an essential service.”
Real journalists are at the war front, said Sani K from Dimapur. While acknowledging that the news scenario has changed drastically with the advancement of technology, he added “nevertheless we owe to the journalists for braving come what may to let the public enjoy their news in the comforts of their abodes.”
In the pursuit of information during the pandemic, scribes become part of the high risk group, Yupangnenla, a former journalist opined. “Especially in Nagaland, journalists may be paid less but do their job diligently, braving everything, going where many would not go,” she asserted.
On the other hand, Alou from Dimapur said that while media persons’ safety also matter, “they could opt to work from home or within the confines of the office and still get the job done. As such, they need not be categorized as frontline workers,” he added.
Kevitho Kera, a businessman in Dimapur shared, “While acknowledging and appreciating the service rendered by all those in the frontline, it will be unfair to club together everyone with those dealing with the virus at dangerous risk levels.”
Clubbing everyone under one single term poses the risk of taking away credit from the real frontliners, he opined. “Maybe frontline workers can be designated according to the risk levels,” Kera suggested.
On a similar note, Gogoi, a correspondent for a regional daily shared that there should be a division. “I am for declaring only those journalists as frontline workers who are exposed to various kinds of people while covering an event like in hospitals, meeting COVID-19 patients, COVID-19 victim families and the like during this pandemic,” he stated.
Whether people recognize journalists as frontline workers or not, we also work in the service of the public although our nature of work may differ from the medical frontliners, DPC President Filip Sumi said.
It is our responsibility to keep the public informed about the activities of the government or what the notified/recognized frontline workers are doing. When others are locked up confined within their homes or working from home, we move about despite the risks, to get accurate and detailed reports, Sumi added.
Similarly, Esther added that, “This is what we, as journalists, signed up for even before the pandemic. If at a time of crisis, we choose our safety over delivering right information, we would be failing our duty.”
While risks are high, scribes have to be at the ‘warfront.’ Our focus is on our duty to inform the people and not on being recognized as frontline workers, the DPC President added.
As of May 2, states like Uttarakhand and Odisha declared journalists as frontline workers. A similar initiative in Nagaland is yet to see the light of day.