Reporting on a pandemic or branding social identities?

Reporting on a pandemic or branding social identities?

 Watching and listening to news has not been a pleasant experience, yet the anxiety over what is the latest score, concern over whether or not our neighbourhood is safe, etc., compels us to return to the news channels. 

Given the lockdown and stay-at-home for our own safety and of those around us, there has been an added reason to be glued to the television sets. If not on a ‘non-stop’ basis, many of us have been surfing the channels, and at periodic intervals returning to the news channels. Watching and listening to news has not been a pleasant experience, yet the anxiety over what is the latest score, concern over whether or not our neighbourhood is safe, etc., compels us to return to the news channels. 

The presentation of news, especially on regional channels, poses a major problem which has the potential of a serious ‘social health’ concern in post-coronavirus society. We were captive audiences for the first two or three weeks of the lockdown, made to watch how the followers of a religious sect among Muslims were culprits spreading the pandemic. Let us not for a moment underestimate the gravity of the problem, of leaving behind a trail of infections which, in turn, threatened to become a more serious stage of community-wide spread.

But instead of the infected or suspected-to-be-infected being described as ‘victims’, the focus became their religious identities. The victims, too, responded in no better manner than to attract such social branding. For there were reports – albeit many of them unverified or later admitted to be false -- of their deliberate spitting on the persona of health workers or defying attempts to track them to be quarantined. These stories were kept on loop, repeating through days, with different dimensions of the sensational story. Eventually, the message received was that a religious sect was responsible for the spread of the deadly virus. They were projected as ‘conspirators’ and villains responsible for the deaths, suffering and the social and economic inconvenience of the lockdown.

By the time this above was well ‘homed,’ there was reporting on a few incidents of attacks upon health workers and officials elsewhere. If the earlier news had created a particular pattern of perception of the pandemic, the happenings in Padarayanapura in Bengaluru did the rest of the job.  This, too, went on for two-three days. 

As though on cue, there was the incident of a labourer in search of treatment, who was later confirmed to be Covid-19-positive. This time, the target of social markers shifted from a clan or a religion to at least three other markers: a ‘Bihari’, a ‘labourer’, and a ‘migrant’.  Unlike many other cases confirmed as ‘positive’ and who had soon acquired a ‘Patient Number,’ this victim continued to be referred to as a ‘labourer’, a ‘migrant’ from ‘Bihar.’ A detailed account of his mischief – of going from one hospital to another, and of his having recently returned from home in Bihar – came to be repeated. We were told of the names of the hospitals to which he went seeking treatment, and of his finally reaching one where he was diagnosed as a positive case of COVID-19. In the course of which he is said to have infected at least nine other persons.

Listening to the narration raised a few questions: Given his social and economic background, what other options did he have in seeking medical help? Was it his fault that he went from pillar to post, to different hospitals, to be cured of his ailment? Or, was he expected to practise ‘social distance’ and risk medical consequences?

The missing question in the media presentation of news is, on what basis was he turned away by the big, government or private hospitals? Was it because he was not a local person, instead a migrant? Or, was it because there were no beds or facilities available to treat him? Or because he was a labourer and would not have been able to meet the costs of treatment in a private hospital? 

Whatever the reasons, why was he not reported to the authorities, officials of the state health department, the task force, or someone who would have addressed the potential infection-threat case? Aren’t people at the different hospitals equally responsible for the secondary infections resulting from this person running around from one hospital to another? Are raising his class identity as a worker, his identity as a person of Bihar origin, and his identity as a migrant, more ‘newsworthy’ than seeking answers to the questions of others’ responsibility for his predicament and actions? 

My concern is, will these social identities and their links to the way in which he was reported as having spread infections be erased from our memories once all this is over? Should people be so branded that we will remember them in future, too, but with prejudices and suspicions? We may have forgotten but this was how we created certain castes as ‘untouchables’, or tribes as ‘criminal tribes’ or ‘notified tribes.’ Even after several centuries and legal attempts, those labels haven’t disappeared altogether. Will Padarayanapura, or Bihari migrant workers, acquire the brand of Pavagada or Dandupalya, if not that of the residents of Chambal?

It’s time there was some serious introspection over the consequences of such news reporting.

(The writer is a Professor of Sociology and formerly headed the Sociology Unit of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)