Galleries more

Videos more

Dictionary more

The Responsibility of the Press and Radio-TV in a Pandemic


The Press has a responsibility during a pandemic. When we say “the Press” we include Radio-TV.

Media institutions have a monopoly in society on influencing public opinion in a regular, modulating way. No other institution has this power. This gives the media a key responsibility during a pandemic

The media can help. It can hinder. It can also, unfortunately, be responsible, during an epidemic, for catastrophe.

Catastrophe during a Covid epidemic means causing the health services to collapse. The Press, like everyone else, should at the very least avoid interfering with the efforts others are making to slow the spread of the epidemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone knew that the aim was to “flatten the curve” and thus “protect the health services from being overwhelmed”. The public can be forgiven for perhaps forgetting this. But the Press has an institutional memory and that means it cannot be forgiven. It is as though, in its blind bid to titillate audiences or readers, in its blind attacks on nurses and doctors instead of on government policies, it actually wants the epidemic to spin out of control: this way it can increase revenue from paid advertisements because of bigger audience or readership; this way it can de-legitimize the regime by overwhelming its health system. These things they might indeed succeed in doing. But they would do it only by raining down upon themselves and the whole of Mauritian society an inordinate amount of destruction. This is totally irresponsible. 

Epidemics are controlled by us all acting in rational ways. “Us all” includes the Press. Being rational implies constant logical thinking.

For example. It is known: vaccination against Covid works. It decreases the risk of illness and death, plus it decreases the overall rate of transmission. These are both scientific fact. 

Yet, from early on, newspapers have given space to a couple of far-fetched medical practitioners, who are against vaccines while being in favour of “treatment” – at first pushing hydroxy-chloroquin and then worm medicine. The Press has quoted, as if true, any rubbishy allegation about side-effects from vaccination as if it were “fact” – mixing psychosomatic symptoms, attempts to get sick leave, and genuine, but unrelated, symptoms. We should constantly remind people how one man died in the queue before he had his vaccination. Had the man died a few minutes later, can you imagine what the Press and private Radio would have concluded as “factual”? Journalists must learn the difference between “causality”, and one thing that happens sequentially after another without any causal relationship. This is the first rule of logic. 

Even now the Press continues its campaign against vaccines. It touts new medicines – some that require hospitalization immediately after testing positive so that the drug can be given via a drip (impossible even to imagine at the height of an epidemic) and others costing Rs30,722 for a few pills. The Press fails to remind people that you need to get vaccinated even ifsome new treatment does become available. Unnecessary emphasis on treatment does nothing to “flatten the curve” nor to preserve the integrity of the health care services. 

Articles that say or imply that Covid vaccines “don’t work” are dangerous. Vaccines work, to be precise in the case of vaccines used in Mauritius, to 80%. That means 80% of people who get infected after being vaccinated are protected. It also means 20% are not. That means the rate of illness and death, once vaccinated people contract the virus, which they can, is five times lower than for those without vaccination. Instead of around 200 deaths, for example, we would have had around 1,000 in the country, had 9 out of 10 of us not gone out and got the vaccine in our arms. Vaccination does not prevent death altogether; it drastically decreases your chances of it, once you are infected. 

Vaccines, in addition, we repeat, in addition, slow down the rate of spread of the virus by a good deal. This is perhaps more difficult for journalists to get their heads around. They never even mention it. It is too intellectually demanding for them, no doubt, in their rush to increase their readership or audiomat or embarrass the Government. But, journalists have a responsibility to learn to think. New Scientist in its 23 October edition quotes a study that estimates some 90% lower rate of transmission by those who are vaccinated. So, that means not just 1,000 deaths avoided by vaccination, but a total of 10,000 less deaths, overall – for the vaccinated and unvaccinated – due to the decreased transmission in society. The Ministry preferred the more accurate way of putting it i.e. between 9,000 and 12,000 deaths were avoided by the level of vaccination we have. Journalists ignore this. They don’t even ask for details as to how the figure was calculated. They seem not to want to know.

Epidemics are controlled by us all knowing the truth. Journalists must find out the truth, and avoid quoting people who say things that are known to be untrue – even if it is the words of someone who is in mourning and who, in their pain, may lash out. A journalist has a responsibility not to convert this cry of pain into a “pseudo-fact”. A responsible editor or owner of a newspaper cannot, for example, just run a front-page banner headline that reads, “ENT: ‘Ou fami pou mor’”. L’Express is effectively inventing a “pseudo fact”, headlining that the ENT is a place where your family will die. It is inexcusable. Those responsible cannot hide behind the inverted commas either. The ENT is not a person that can speak. Readers do not, in any case, notice punctuation in a headline but pick up just the content. The fact that, under the pseudonym K.C. RANZE on page 9, L’Express runs a thoughtful editorial does not counter-balance this harmful front page headline.

When comparing Covid deaths of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, journalists must constantly point out that today 90% of Mauritian adults are vaccinated, 10% are not vaccinated. So the rate of infection of these two groups can be compared only by reminding people of the size of the bottom figure, as well as the top one. Yes, you have to understand fractions i.e. even if, out of 10 deaths in one day, 5 are unvaccinated and 5 vaccinated, it is 5 out of 100,000 people who were unvaccinated, whereas the 5 vaccinated people are 5 out of nearly 1,000,000. So, the vaccinated are dying at a 10 times lower rate than the unvaccinated. As the number of vaccinated people tends towards 100%, so long as the pandemic has not been eradicated, the percentage of deaths of vaccinated as a proportion of the total will obviously also go up over time because there aren’t many unvaccinated people left, whereas they were the vast majority in the early days of the epidemic. In the USA, for example, before vaccination even began, over 350,000 people had already died of Covid, unvaccinated. 

So every article, every news item that pumps up ignorant claims that vaccination “isn’t working” and this way discourages vaccination is, in fact, a contributing cause of the acceleration of the spread of Covid.

Epidemics are controlled by everyone helping everyone else to remain calm, too. If the Press, from its privileged position of being able to mold public opinion, encourages panic, this adds to the dangers. How can people think rationally once they are in a state of panic? Once a level of general mass hysteria is reached, there is no space for logical thinking. In 1994, there was a wave of mass hysteria when people overtaken by panic “saw” a werewolf popularly called Touni Minnwi. It was difficult to convince people that Touni Minnwi was only in their own minds. People overtaken by panic actually saw the werewolf, and if you told them they did not “see” him, but only “thought” they did, they might pick up a stick and beat you with it. That is what happens with spreading panic. Talking about sticks, opportunistic entrepreneurs actually took to selling bundles of pyon-denn sticks claiming this poisonous plant could ward off Touni Minnwi. Is the Press raising the level of panic in order to sell more newspapers? Like pyon-denn sticks? Are radio announcers doing the same so as to increase their audiomat? We are not saying they are like these liar-entrepreneurs, doing anything to make a bit more money, but it seems they are willing to run the risk of being seen this way.

In addition, Covid’s main danger is that it can attack our breathing apparatus. Every thinking person knows that panic can cause death in a respiratory crisis. So the patient and family need to keep calm. The Press has a duty to help us all maintain a sense of calm in society, and especially at the health facilities. Once patients in respiratory difficulty fall prey to panic, they literally get worse – just as a result of the panic. Every asthmatic knows the importance of keeping calm. The Press has to bear this in mind. Can you imagine the state of mind of a patient today being admitted to the ICU at the ENT after having read the L’Expressheadline at the newspaper seller’s stall on Sunday? Is this contributing to people staying at home when they need hospitalization?

If the Press makes the public believe that hospitals, in general, and ICU’s in particular are “dangerous” places, when they are our only hope for care, the Press is acting extremely irresponsibly. The Sunday papers have all gone berserk this past week-end, quoting people referring to ENT hospital as worse than just “dangerous”, but as “an abattoir”. This is what is dangerous. Not the hospitals, nor the ICU, but this hideous propaganda. 

If journalists cannot understand that a ward for crisis patients, that an ICU ward, is a place where many people die, they should not be journalists at all. It is a place where nursing and medical staff – with all their ancillary staff – fight tooth and nail to save a few lives of people already on the edge. That is what ICU means. ICU’s for Covid typically have a death rate of 30 – 70%, depending on the age profile and co-morbidity profile of the patients admitted, as well as on requisite numbers of experienced staff and supplies of oxygen. 

And once the Press begins to brand hospital staff as “abattoir” workers, then they are doing what is most dangerous of all for the Covid epidemic: adding to the danger of causing the hospital services to collapse. Can you imagine (as we in LALIT can imagine, simply because we have members who work in this sector) what it is like to work at the ENT? Day after day, night after night, the work is hard, hard work, often understaffed, and emotionally exhausting. Every day they live through the risk of, themselves, getting Covid. Every day, they risk taking the infection home to their children, mothers, fathers, grannies and granddads. And then, people sitting at computers in air conditioning, accuse them of running an “abattoir”? We suggest Nawaaz Noorbux, Murvind Beetun and Touria Prayag, and all the L’Express reporters and their bosses, as well as whoever is in charge of Le Mauricien’s column of collected garbage submitted by some readers, take a two-week turn as from tomorrow working as a volunteer Nurses’ Assistant in the Covid Ward at ENT. 

Maybe this would teach them a bit of responsibility. Maybe this would expose to them – assuming they do not do it on purpose – just how sadistic their words are in relation to hospital workers.

All this shows up three problems in the Press:

First, many in the Press and on private Radio want to get rid of the MSM Government, which is their right. We, too, would like to. But, since the Press do not have programmatic criticisms of the Government, all they do is to attack the health sector, and this, during a pandemic, is not their right. This is totally irresponsible. Worse still, it is nihilist. Once the two or three beds at the Private Clinic that is about to open to Covid patients, are full, journalists, like all the other 90% of us, will be in the care of the very hospital workers they are demoralizing, even demonizing. It is either blindness or nihilism, destroying their only salvation. It is either ignorance or evil.

Second, do editors not realize that these kinds of article – attacking the staff, day after day – will only aggravate the exhaustion and burn-out that, in any case, come with such stressful work?  Do the editors feel no responsibility to call, as the Press, on the remaining 100,000 adults still hesitant, to go out and get the vaccine? Do they still feel it useful to push treatment as opposed to vaccination? 

Third, when LALIT, at the beginning of the pandemic, called, together with about 10 trade unions and people’s associations, for the massive recruitment of permanent hospital staff, especially people in nursing and assistant nursing roles, did the Press do its part in this campaign? It is nearly two years now since the epidemic began. We could, right now, have 500 new nurses with one-year’s training, had we had support from the Press in this demand. Note that the Government could find money to recruit 4,000 new police officers. Does the Press not think this money would be better spent, during a pandemic, on nursing and other hospital staff?

So, we call on all editors, owners and journalists to do their bit. One journalist that we, in LALIT, notice encourages vaccination, and helps keep people rational and calm is Radio Plus’s Prem Sewpaul.

The MBC does not do enough proper reporting or analysis on the pandemic. We have not seen reporting on people who have recovered from Covid. Nor on long-haulers still suffering. We have not seen reporting on the work conditions of nurses, helpers, attendants and doctors on Covid wards. We have not seen enough coverage of the enthusiasm that there is for the vaccine amongst ordinary people. The MBC fails, too, to take a stand, as an institution, in favour of vaccination. Instead, its constant pumping up of Pravind Jugnauth and the MSM-led government erodes the MBC’s credibility.

LALIT, 8 November 2021.