Sometime in the month of March, a woman suffering from intense abdominal pain from a pre-diagnosed urinal tract infection was denied treatment in a renowned hospital at Kolkata, West Bengal. She then went to another hospital where she received the same response. Finally, she received treatment in the third hospital. Despite having no symptoms, she was denied any sort of treatment due to unavailability of testing kits in the former hospitals.
That night she was coerced to visit the second hospital whose officials had lodged a complaint against her running away. Forcefully admitted into an isolation ward with at least a dozen suspected patients after ignoring her pleas of her having a UTI and a certificate of exemption from screening from the third hospital. The next day the doctor confronted her by questioning her nationality, the doctor asked whether she was from China. The pain and suffering she went through at the hospital were not something she thought she deserved because of having ‘mongoloid’ features.
Although the woman belonged to Sikkim, such behaviour against northeasterners has persisted since this country’s foundation. Anti-Asian racism has taken a toll all over the world. People having mongoloid features are targeted for spreading the virus in the respective countries irrespective of their nationality. Northeast Indians were beaten with sticks, forbidden to enter shops, boycotted for spreading the virus and were also thrown out of their hostels or rented apartments for being someone with similar facial features.
Apart from facing discrimination worldwide, Indians do not feel safe within their own country.
People belonging to North-East India have faced continuous discrimination from mainland Indians as reflected in the narrative written above.
However, when the situations are so grave, mainstream media in India as well as worldwide spread misinformation and enforce racial stereotypes thus proselytising fear. During a pandemic, when it is obvious that people will be glued to their television sets, sensationalist media shows what their targeted audience will enjoy watching.
Creation of fear amid any natural disaster is nothing unknown to the world of journalism. Sensational, trivial and irresponsible coverage by media houses has somewhat legitimised xenophobic acts on North East and East Asian communities.
Replacing Corona Virus with Chinese Virus by President Donald Trump and further stating it as “Kung-flu” and further othering of the discriminated through hashtags like “#ChineseVirus” or “#WuhanVirus” does not reflect the inclusivity of news coverage.
In this 21st century when media has been extended to social media, the spread of xenophobia has increased. Unintentionally or intentionally, journalists publish articles with click-bait headlines which provide inaccurate information about those impacted by the disease. Constant coverage of the epicentre of the disease and the fatality rates at the beginning of 2020, created fear and panic among masses. The public, incited by such reports, blamed residents of the epicentre and were stimulated to engage in racial scapegoating.
Global coverage by media houses did only state it as “WuhanVirus” but also as something that was “Made in China”. Many news channels failed to put up the heinous racist crimes meted out in the name of Covid-19. The overt usage of historically racist terminology as a click-bait are examples of predatory journalism which targets the audience against the vulnerable.
Memes created to mock the eating habits of China, East Asia and North East India, exacerbates the othering of immigrants and the vulnerable.
Tablighi Jamat was a religious event that held in March 2020 in New Delhi and was attended by foreigners from South East Asia as well as Indians. Later it was found out that few of them were corona carriers. When the event ended, they went back to their home states, carrying the virus with them. Coverage of this event and its link to an increase in the spread of the infection by the Indian media was highly condemnable. They linked every new case to the religious conglomeration.
While news channels told us the percentage of infections related to the Jamat. they did not notify us about the number of people tested.
Saugato Datta, a behavioural and developmental economist explained to the Scroll that “This is basically sampling bias: since people from this one cluster have been tested at very high rates, and overall testing is low, it is hardly surprising that a large proportion of overall positives is attributed to this cluster”.
Several states made it compulsory to take legal action against anyone who attended the Jamat and was not cooperating with the authorities to get tested. Even people without symptoms were tested who attended the event, but the same was not done for other religious or non-religious clusters. Hate memes became a trend on social media and debates over the Tablighi event with derogatory remarks by some journalists, became common in newsrooms.
Lack of medical equipment, testing kits, distribution of food and the large mass movement of migrant workers were pushed behind sensational Islamophobic media content.
Using the deplorable situation due to pandemic by alternative right politicians and media channels as a political agenda continues after decades across the world. Such actions and reactions make the living of the vulnerable questionable. Mainstream media which exists to inform people is a farse and exists to serve the privileged.
A detailed report by Oxfam and Newslaundry states that most of the Indian media is biased. It shows that those working inside the newsrooms stream news which is of great concern for the urban people. About 84% of all leadership positions in digital media houses were acquired mostly by people from the general category. A small representation of marginalised communities and minorities in media has greatly affected the type of information that is streamed.
Coverage of daily-wage workers going out to work to sustain their living amid the lockdown and asking them why they are out of their houses and what will happen if they get infected will insinuate those sitting on the other side of the television. Instead, news coverage should exist to sensitize, spread awareness and help prevent the spread of the virus than xenophobia. News coverage needs to be more inclusive and should serve every individual in a country. Even during a pandemic, the media should work as the fourth pillar of democracy.