Padma Priya and Ayesha Minhaz
We write this open letter with our experience of having tried and finding it increasingly difficult to access COVID-19 related information from Telangana state officials. This letter also has inputs from multiple journalists from the State who did not want to be identified.
We are listing the complaints in the public sphere to bring immediate attention to this issue.
During a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected over 160 countries including India, communication to the public through mass media has to be one of the topmost priorities for state and national governments. In the last two weeks, Telangana has seen a spurt in cases from one case to currently (March 20) 19 cases.
But as the cases began to rise, reporters are finding it extremely difficult to get responses from health officials. The otherwise reachable health department officials are increasingly operating in a manner that looks like one-way communication.
Telangana officials started a media group on WhatsApp for reporters working on COVID-19 related stories.
On the night of March 13, the first recorded COVID-19 death (Kalaburagi, Karnataka) in India was reported. Journalists learned that the 76-year-old had visited three hospitals in Hyderabad and requested details.
The questions were about the timeline of the patient’s visit to the hospitals, names of the hospitals, comments on allegations that he was denied treatment at a public hospital in Hyderabad, the operations of rapid response teams, contact tracing, test kits available, etc. After answering a few questions, the director of public health reacted by changing the settings of the group. Now, only the admins, i.e, the government officials can post on the group.
This incident took place days after journalists were assured of timely response at a press conference which was addressed by Cyberabad police commissioner Sajjanar, IT secretary Jayesh Ranjan, and director, public health, G Srinivas Rao.
The second and a more grave -issue of mishandling occurred on March 19. In a press release at 9.16 pm, the officials appealed people to self-quarantine in the event of them having visited a particular mall in Hyderabad. It was mentioned that a patient who tested positive had visited that mall on March 11. Several reporters started contacting officials. After over an hour, another press release was sent asking the media to ignore the previous one. No clarifications or reasons were provided.
The only response that Ayesha Minhaz was able to receive from the director, public health, was: “We are doing further investigation.”
In at least one media house, the story went to print. Almost 24 hours since then, most reporters have not received any official clarification on whether the public needs to be alerted or not. Meanwhile, panic has spread among the public on social media platforms.
Another instance of lack of communication: It remains unclear how many primary contacts have been traced or tracked the Indonesian group that tested positive.
It is only today (March 20), most of the media bulletins have arrived as and when cases started getting detected. However, since they contain mostly statistics, doing detailed stories without the officials giving further details isn’t possible.
Another concern here is that Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao, in a press meet, warned the media against publishing any unconfirmed information. While it is a valid advisory, how are the journalists expected to report without any officials responding to numerous messages and phone calls?
One journalist told us, “In the last two weeks, even a simple confirmatory ‘yes’ has meant 50-60 phone calls, and waiting till late night for officials to make an announcement.”
While the media's job is to amplify the important messages being put out by the government, it also entails asking questions. Instead of taking a defensive approach at a time like this, the state government would benefit by being proactive.
Says another reporter: “If a department thinks a certain piece of information is sensitive, sensitize reporters on why it is sensitive. Building a wall and concealing information, being unresponsive will only trigger more questions and speculations.”
While the Director of Public Health may be the right spokesperson, a question needs to be asked if the director of public health should be fielding numerous media questions at a time like this when he has other tasks at hand. Telangana could perhaps help itself by identifying another health official to respond to the the barrage of queries.
Here are a few suggestions we have collated, not just from our side, but at least ten other reporters.
● Put out information, regularly.
● The government should consider having an operational media cell. The journalists should not be pushed to collating bits of information from various departments or officials.
● Appoint multiple spokespersons who can be available to respond to queries.
● Please organize daily and timely press conferences, which are also live-streamed. Regular briefings enable countering misinformation.
● Put the COVID19 related updates on Telangana Health department official social media handles too.
● Avoid conflicting press releases and provide clarification when such a thing happens.
● Not all reporters covering the COVID-19 outbreak have previous experience working on the health beat. Not everyone has sources. Enable the free flow of information.
● Use media platforms to repeatedly bust myths and provide FAQs.
● Provide information for the reporters to put out videos/infographics on what isolation ward/quarantine means, for instance. Doing so will reduce fear and panic among the public.
● Provide clear and concise information (without violating patient confidentiality) of where the patients traveled, public places visited, etc. A good example of this is Kerala’s contact-tracing maps.
● Lastly, organize a quick COVID-19 reporting workshop.
The most critical need in such pandemics is to take the help of journalists to ensure timely and accurate information is available to the public--to allay fears while also conveying the seriousness of the issue at hand. This is an unprecedented situation for everyone, and it is time Telangana looks at best practices being used worldwide by the public health departments.
(Padma Priya is co-founder and editor of Suno India, an independent digital media platform and has extensively worked in public health advocacy and communications. Ayesha Minhaz is an independent journalist who has worked in Telangana since 2014 and hosts a show on Suno India.)