Free, Fast & Factless

17 Mar,2020


By Ranjona Banerji


My Whatsapp this morning is full of the most wondrous information thanks to the coronavirus, Covid 19. It ranges from blowing a hairdryer up your nose to kill the virus to 119 people quarantined in a brothel in Spain to residents in an apartment block in self-isolation in Italy all singing the songs of the Tamil composer Illiaraja. I think the brothel thing is true or maybe not!

Plus all those endless bits of advice: don’t touch milk bags, elevator buttons, newspapers (I think some news sites and new channels are responsible for this one!), car doors after you have washed them and more. The virus can exist between contact for five hours, six hours, seven hours, nine hours. Sneezes are dangerous. Sneezes are not. The virus is the same as flu. The virus is not.

In India, we have our own obsessions with excreta, unlike the western world which is paranoid about running out of loo paper. So various BJP leaders have declaimed that cow urine and cow dung can cure the virus. And one former editor and journalist declared on Twitter that faecal microbiota transplant should not be scoffed at by ‘Lutyens minds” as a presumable defence for the cow dung cure.

The trouble is that none of these claims come with any substantiation and that they spread panic and hope just the same. What should the average person do? Believe all of it? None of it? “News” and “information” about the latest virus spreads so fast and free, that it is impossible to sift fact from lies. I believed the one about footballer Christiano Ronaldo paying for all medical treatment in Portugal until the kind people of Twitter quickly told me it was fake.

The battle against fake news is not new but it has never been more important. Because never has fake news been as dangerous. The World Health Organisation has declared Covid 19 a pandemic. (I just get all my info from the WHO site now.) What we do know is that governments across the world are not ready. Bombastic claims by world leaders are not being adequately challenged by the media, which itself suffers from an information overload.

However, there is no doubt that even with the overload, traditional and mainstream media are not doing enough to dispel the rumours. A small example is the travel advisory which the Ministry of Health put out. It said that no “passengers” will be allowed into India from March 18 and airlines should inform passengers of this from the first port of departure. Now does this mean only visitors or does it mean passengers including those returning home?

Journalists seemed more confused than anyone else because when I asked the question, I got both answers from other journalists!

Latest reports – from doctors – tell us that India is not doing enough testing. But several news stories informed us that India was the best because the virus had not spread. Prime Minister Modi announced that India had started testing at airports in mid-January itself and that is why numbers in India are low. This was a blatant lie. But was Mr Modi questioned by the media? Several government claims have been fed to the public – including various “cures” and preventives from the Ayush ministry – without any supporting evidence or questioning. The public has been left to fend for itself.

This headless chicken response is not limited to the Indian media. The British media for instance has not done enough, for my money, to combat the Boris Johnson government’s “herd immunity” idea as a preventive. Like the Indian media, the onus has been put on experts writing on the opinion pages to set the record straight. You and I both know that opinion pages are the least read in any paper. What happened to good old reportage to the set the foundation on which opinion can be raised?

The media’s negligence is criminal. I know that initial days of any crises are difficult. But that excuse works only for the first couple of days. After that, if you haven’t got your act together, you are no better than some idiot on Whatsapp spreading another sort of virus.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal



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