Ranjona Banerji: Covid-19: After the foolhardy nonchalance comes the panic

13 Mar,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


It took one heartfelt speech by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, to make the world sit up and take the coronavirus named Covid-19 seriously. That’s governments, businesses, organisations, the media, the public. Groups at the forefront were obviously struggling. It was the word “pandemic” that galvanised the world.


But between the first news trickling in from China and Tedros’s declaration, lies the shadow. The first excuse would be that people have cried wolf so many times that Covid-19, which didn’t even have a name until recently, was just seen as one more overreaction and one more those viruses which were bad but not world class destroyers.

Well, after the foolhardy nonchalance comes the panic. And through all this, we did not see the world’s media investigate the virus, report on governmental action and inaction and dissect the measures taken to contain it.

I must excuse from this analysis TV channels like India’s Times Now. They ran a story on the night of March 12, which was advertised like this: “By limiting the number of fatalities to 74 with no casualties in a country of 1.3 billion people, has the @narendramodi Government been successful so far in its fight against Corona?” Because this is just plain adoration and in playground terms (when I was little at least) “sucking up”. Fate is a nasty creature as the Greeks warned us centuries ago and India announced its first fatality after this ad went up.

This article by The Economist analyses the progress of the disease and reactions to it.

“Few of today’s political leaders have ever faced anything like a pandemic and its economic fallout—though some are evoking the financial crisis of 2007-09 (see article). As they belatedly realise that health systems will buckle and deaths mount, leaders are at last coming to terms with the fact that they will have to weather the storm. Three factors will determine how they cope: their attitude to uncertainty; the structure and competence of their health systems; and, above all, whether they are trusted.

“The uncertainty has many sources. One is that SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, covid-19, are not fully understood (see article). Another is over the status of the pandemic. In each region or country it tends to proliferate rapidly undetected. By the time testing detects cases in one place it will be spreading in many others, as it was in Italy, Iran and South Korea. By the time governments shut schools and ban crowds they may be too late.”


In India, inordinate attention was paid to the nonsense put out by proponents of the “cow dung and cow urine cures all” brigade, without adequate debunking. Not to mention various suggestions of useless preventives from the Ayush ministry. Close analyses of hospitals across India and the arrangements made to deal with a fast-spreading disease were missing. The fallout of this on the travel and tourism industry were ignored. Popular columnists put out ignorant and potentially dangerous personal views like India’s general filth made us immune to passing viruses. Was this an elliptical hint at the failure of Modi’s Clean India Mission? Hmm.

Because the general preoccupation of the government was the toppling of the Madhya Pradesh government, the media focus lay there as well. The world was a foreign place far away and we presumably live outside it. How many important and self-important journalists questioned the Modi government’s concentration on Madhya Pradesh while a pandemic loomed over the world?

Even when the government announced its various steps of stopping travellers coming in and enforced quarantine just after the WHO declaration, there was confusion. No one was sure of what the new regulations entailed. The constant stream of fake news on social media platforms added to the panic. What role did the media play in clearing the confusion, if any?

As the world shuts down, India’s Union health minister is all sanguine: Given our general capacity to deal with medical crises, how much to believe, who knows?



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


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