Waiting patiently for information during a pandemic

It is difficult to contact officials but getting accurate information is worth the effort

Updated - March 20, 2020 01:32 am IST

Published - March 20, 2020 12:15 am IST

Laptop, Diary, Personal Organizer, Open Sign, Material

Laptop, Diary, Personal Organizer, Open Sign, Material

For a reporter, not every phone call and not every effort to meet an official ends as expected. Our aim is to not only get information, but to get information that is accurate. Especially at a time like this, when we are at the centre of a global pandemic , no information can be published without ascertaining its accuracy first. Putting forth credible information is our most important responsibility.

For a State like Tamil Nadu, disease outbreaks are nothing new for public health officials. While these outbreaks — whether chikungunya, H1N1 influenza, or dengue — have provided them numerous lessons and experiences, they have also taught them how to handle queries from journalists covering health.

Coronavirus | Interactive map of confirmed coronavirus cases in India

But unlike the previous outbreaks, the COVID-19 outbreak has pushed the officials to take an important decision. After years of contemplating it and even mentioning it on a number of occasions, COVID-19 has forced the State’s Health and Family Welfare Department to issue health bulletins. The first such bulletin came out in the first week of February. What prompted the Department were numerous calls from journalists, and the need to provide daily updates to journalists.

These bulletins, released anytime between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. every day, have come in handy but they have limited information. There are many things that journalists need to know apart from what the bulletins provide. We need to know know many passengers have been screened at airports, how many patients are under quarantine in hospital, and how many are under quarantine at home. To get this added information, we call or try to meet officials. However, meeting them is almost impossible now, except at press conferences.

I made a quick count of the number of calls I made to various officials of the Health Department over the past two-three days. They ranged anywhere between 10 to 15 calls. Many of these calls went unanswered; often, the number was busy. Apart from this, I have also been spending a lot of time simply staring at WhatsApp or SMS, fervently hoping that the official will reply to my messages.

Some officials do make life easy for journalists. They provide the right information at the right time. However, there are some who never do so.

A reporter has to understand that he or she isn’t the only journalist trying to reach the official; there are several others. And these officials, who form the core team working to control and prevent the spread of the disease, have a series of meetings every day. Some of them do answer immediately or call back in between meetings, in hushed tones.

It is crucial to understand the seriousness of the ongoing global health crisis, and their role in tackling it. Journalists must remember that many public health officials and their teams, numbering hundreds, have been working across Tamil Nadu since mid-January. Every time I make a call, I ensure that I remember that he or she has a job at hand. Yes, it is important for them to provide information, but it is equally a responsibility for journalists like me to keep trying, to wait patiently to get authentic information.

The last few weeks have been challenging, especially in terms of reaching officials. These are days that cannot be planned until we are COVID-19-free. But it is worth the effort to keep dialling the officials.

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