Journalism in the time of an outbreak

Reporters risk contracting whatever contagion is ruling the roost

February 07, 2020 12:15 am | Updated February 08, 2020 02:06 pm IST

A woman wearing a face mask passes a public health England sign, warning passengers arriving on flights into the U.K., that a virus, Coronavirus, has been detected in Wuhan in China. File

A woman wearing a face mask passes a public health England sign, warning passengers arriving on flights into the U.K., that a virus, Coronavirus, has been detected in Wuhan in China. File

A virus is a formidable foe for humans who are periodically affected, often in swathes, but more so for health journalists. In unimaginable ways, a public health emergency sometimes blindfolds a journalist, disallowing proper employment of the tools and techniques of the trade. There is no press pass that bacteria recognise, no calling card that will impress a virus enough to stay away. Sometimes, just doing one’s job could land one in the deep end.

Reporting is about ‘being there’ as news breaks, as events happen, in the epicentre. It is often about rushing in where angels fear to tread. With a bit of excessive enthusiasm, the reporter could land up with a more intimate experience than she had bargained for.

The modern world, nearly seamless and borderless, has begun to regularly afflict us with outbreaks. Often, in the initial stages, everyone just feels around in the dark. The light eventually slips in through the cracks, and if we are lucky, a cure too. But in the initial feeling around phase, it is possible that an enthusiastic health reporter has a higher degree of risk of contracting whatever contagion is ruling the roost than the general population, just shades less than the healthcare worker.

A basic prevention protocol automatically kicks in these days, and the masks are deployed early on, but there was seldom such clarity in the past. Health workers with meagre resources would try to overcome outbreaks with sheer will and sacks of chlorine powder. Cholera and acute diarrhoeal diseases in north Chennai were a common occurrence up until a decade ago. Those sent out to the area to do a spot story would have to figure out what to drink or eat locally, besides being careful about what to touch, in order not to be visited upon by a virulent vibrio cholerae.

Who knew what protection to take while walking into the wards of government hospitals brimming over with patients, the corners fertile with bodily fluids, and the air heavy with the stench of cheap disinfectant? If mortuary trips became a necessity, as they did during the tsunami, a handkerchief or dupatta would offer protection. The N95 masks were unheard of then. As for gloves, even mortuary workers used them only for special occasions.

Wandering on the dark sands of the tsunami-ravaged Nagapattinam and Cuddalore coast without the right footwear left its mark on journalists too. Red, itchy patches evolved into dark splotches on the legs. It was contact dermatitis that doctors found in the local survivors of the big wave as well. Galoshes were not on our mind, as we grappled to report the unprecedented ramifications of the tragedy.

And how do you protect yourself from the female anopheles mosquito carrying the deadly plasmodium vector, in cities that continue to be endemic to malaria? This is a problem especially when a visit to an affected area is the way your story can unfold, naturally putting you in harm’s way. In the first wave of chikungunya in the south, in 2006, unsuspecting journalists stumbled right into dens of Aedes mosquitoes, even before it became clear what was making people double up in agony.

Experiential journalism adds value, but in retrospect, these were experiences that were perhaps not necessary.

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