One year of the Lockdown: Gov’s Biggest Failure was Media’s Biggest Failure

25 Mar,2021


By Ranjona Banerji


Ranjona BanerjiFor the past week, we’ve had several reminisces on the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, across the world. Of course, we knew about the virus, later named Covid-19, earlier than this. But we didn’t take it seriously, because it was like so many warnings about dangerous viruses which hadn’t become pandemics.

Until this one did.

Today marks the date India was put into lockdown. And like all announcements made in today’s India, this one was full of dramas and promises: Very short notice, very severe conditions, large assurances that the virus would be “vanquished” in 21 days when the lockdown ended and most importantly, that the time we were indoors would be spent by the Government to augment health infrastructure.

The lockdown was definitely necessary, and the Centre did not balk at this tough decision. Sadly, a mere lockdown was insufficient without the promised augmentation.

But the biggest official failure of those early days was the lack of provision made for India’s neediest: daily wage labourers, street vendors and migrant labour. And what was the government’s biggest failure was also the media’s biggest failure. It took the mainstream media, particularly television which has the widest reach, far too long to accept and acknowledge the tragedy being played out on India’s streets. Thousands and thousands walked home in the increasing summer heat because they had no means to survive in the cities where they had moved to work. India’s invisible workers remained invisible even as they walked in plain sight.

It took smaller, independent media voices, the digital media and the print media to bring the horror to public attention. Barkha Dutt and her Mojo Story as they walked with the migrants for 100 days was the most prominent and served as a wakeup call for some TV channels.

This analysis from Outlook, from end May 2020, looks at how India’s economic policies impact migrant labour.

Most damning are the first three paragraphs of this exhaustive report by IndiaSpend underlines the severity of the crisis:

“A day before the lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, the government told parliament that “it is not feasible to keep record/data of migrant labour workforce” because migrant workers tend to move often in search of employment. But over the next 68 days of the lockdown, as an unprecedented migrant worker crisis unfurled in India, it became clear that reliable data were critical to developing an effective migrant worker policy.

“Between March 25 and May 1, 2020, distressed migrant workers, stranded without jobs, savings, shelter, food, transport or any organised support system, began long treks back home with their families and sparse belongings. The homeward exodus of around 11.4 million migrant workers–more than the population of Uttarakhand–resulted in at least 971 non-COVID deaths, including 96 workers who died on trains.

“Five months after they left the cities where they worked, migrants started returning because of the lack of employment opportunities in villages, showed a rapid assessment survey. However, the pandemic had caused an economic contraction by then, and the number of poor Indians (with incomes of $2 or less a day) rose by 75 million. In April 2020 alone, 122 million Indians lost their jobs, a 30% fall in employment over the previous year.”

This article from The Indian Express looks at a year of misery:

And this report from the Hindustan Times highlights how the exploitation continues, a year on:

Yes, all these links are from long after the migrants walked home: two are from this week. If you do an internet search for the coverage of the migrant workers as it happened, you get more academic reports than TV coverage. That is a telling indictment of the failure of large sections of the Indian media.

However, if you search for stories for how we clapped, banged our pots and pans and sang “Go Corona Go”, you will find many reports, gasping with excitement at our amazing response to Covid19.

We all know the reasons why.

Even today, we have journalists who cannot hold the authorities to account, in spite of the enormous mistakes made and the lies told.

This, to me, was and is our biggest media failure for the pandemic.

With numbers still rising, next week let’s look at the small band of health reporters who tried to walk the publicity minefield laid out by their colleagues to try and decode both the virus and the official response to it.

Please mask up and get yourself vaccinated as soon as you can, if you are within the allowed categories.


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



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