Indian state and federal governments face questions on handling of Covid-19 pandemic

Healthcare workers attend to Covid-19 patients inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a care centre in New Delhi, on May 7, 2021.
Healthcare workers attend to Covid-19 patients inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a care centre in New Delhi, on May 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - When results for the elections in five states came out last weekend, two English-language television channels, India Ahead and Times Now, decided not to cover them so as to keep the focus on the Covid-19 crisis in the country.

Times Now said it was suspending its coverage of the results on May 2 and any potential celebrations "as a symbolic gesture of our disagreement with the untimeliness of this activity."

Massive rallies had been held in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry, including by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as politicians ignored the signs of a second wave taking root in the country.

These and other mass events are thought to have contributed to a devastating second Covid-19 wave. More than 20 million Indians have now been infected.

In cricket-mad India, the New Indian Express, an English daily newspaper, suspended its coverage of the Indian Premier League 2021,a cricket tournament, nearly a week before play was suspended after cricketers tested positive.

It said in a letter from the editor published on April 25 that this was a "small gesture towards keeping the nation's attention focused on life and death issues."

India's media has not taken its eye off the pandemic, closely documenting the desperate search for hospital beds and oxygen amid an acute shortage, and the overwhelming number of deaths as crematoriums struggle to keep up.

Many newsrooms have suffered losses themselves, sometimes sending out pleas of help on social media for colleagues who have needed hospitalisation.

"It gives the media no joy to tell viewers these stories of suffering. But the reality is that India is suffering. If the pandemic coverage is genuinely affecting the mental space of viewers they can switch off the television or avoid reading news," said English television channel WION on its website.

"But remember - this is not the same as ignorance. The media cannot pretend the pandemic doesn't exist."

A handful of leading English dailies have run editorials criticising both the federal and state governments for failing to prepare for the crisis.

The Hindu newspaper in an editorial on April 20 said, "Yet, nearly a year after hospitals were stretched beyond capacity and beds and medical oxygen supplies were in short supply, no attempts have been made either by State or Union governments to significantly augment medical oxygen supplies."

The Indian Express in an editorial published on April 28 noted that on April 22 Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled himself out of election meetings to supervise the Covid-19 response and an hour later, the Election Commission banned roadshows and public meetings of over 500.

"On April 22, then, two dismal messages were sent out. One, that it took the case load to surge so completely out of control for the PM to pull himself away from the over-long election campaign. And two, that it took the PM's decision for the EC to act," The Indian Express said.

"Both these messages accentuate the spiralling sense of political and institutional abandonment in the pandemic's second surge."

In recent years, Indian media has become extremely polarised. Sections of the mainstream media support the ruling party in every decision, while others are moderate. A handful of online news portals and magazines will scrutinise government policies.

"I think the print media has done a better job in presenting the true extent and trauma of the pandemic, especially the second wave," said Mr Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, a Delhi-based senior journalist and columnist.

He noted that pro-government television channels tend to blame the bureaucracy and state governments that are non-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party).

One channel even blamed farmers who are protesting in several places on Delhi's borders for the oxygen supply shortage in the capital city.

Some believe the failure to not hold the government accountable had helped contribute to the complacency that led to the second wave.

"They (government) managed the narrative that India was doing well; that India was great and the pharmacy of the world; and India is giving million of vaccine doses to other countries. When these major steps (like exporting vaccines) were taken by the government, there was no scrutiny and no critical engagement," said Ms Pamela Philipose, author of Media's Shifting Terrain: Five Years That Transformed the Way India Communicates, and public editor at The Wire, a Delhi-based news portal.

"The government narrative, I think, did definitely contribute to a feeling of complacency, which is the reason we are in the state today."