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Why Are Journalists Not Considered Essential Workers?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Journalists have been at the forefront of covering the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. They have paid a heavy price due to the virus.

According to a study done by the Delhi-based Institute of Perception Studies, as many as 101 journalists have died due to COVID-19 since January 2021, 52 in April alone. Uttar Pradesh has seen the most number of deaths, followed by Telangana and Maharashtra. This implies, on average, about two journalists died every day last month. 

India is among the top three countries globally when it comes to deaths of journalists due to COVID-19, a Geneva-based media rights body has found.

Unlike doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and other frontline workers, journalists were not in the Phase-1 vaccination drive. While most frontline workers got their first jabs, journalists were still reporting on the ground unprotected from the virus.

Should Journalists Be Classified As Essential Workers?

In the world’s largest democracy, journalists maintain the social fabric of society. Amidst a pandemic, they report on the ground from the megacities where the virus has uprooted the very rubric of life and rural areas where the virus has slowly spread. 

They have covered everything from the burning of funeral pyres in crematoriums to the vast lines outside vaccine centres. They have also bravely monitored the situation in hospitals, where people are dying because of not getting beds or oxygen supply.

Democracies require that journalists be named essential workers. They have strived to enhance the accountability of the government during the pandemic and ensured the protection of freedom of expression, which is the basic tenet of the constitution. Honest and truthful journalism forms the fourth pillar of democracy to keep other pillars in check. 

However, many state governments have announced journalists as essential workers. MK Stalin, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, declared media persons as frontline workers. Stalin said that the media persons would receive the same entitlements and support provided to frontline workers.

West Bengal, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Uttarakhand are the other states that announced journalists as frontline workers and eligible for COVID-19 vaccine preference.

Odisha went a step further. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik declared working journalists of the state as frontline COVID warriors for providing seamless news feed. He announced an amount of ₹15 lakh for the next of kin of journalists who die of COVID-19 while performing their duty.

In April, the Editors Guild of India asked the central government to include journalists as frontline workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on a priority basis. The Editors Guild’s statement said that news organisations had been relentlessly covering the pandemic, elections and other current affairs to ensure that the flow of news and information to readers continues unabated. 

“News media is included in essential services. Therefore, it will only be fair that journalists be given this cover of protection, especially in the face of the number of infected rising to astronomical levels,” read the statement. 

Why Is The Union Government Silent? 

Corona Virus Outbreak In India
Representative Image. (Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The union government is silent because they are scared of dissent. 

The media has been working tirelessly to expose the actual death count of the pandemic that has been hidden or ignored, which they say is 3–5 times more than the reported numbers. A new report has claimed that the official number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in India till 5 May, 2021, was 2,21,181, which could be a third of the actual number due to under-reporting.

According to a new analysis released by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the actual number could have been as high as 6,54,395.

The local media has also proven its calibre. Local Gujarati newspapers published a report using death certificates issued by state authorities between 1 March and 10 May to claim that the state has witnessed an excess of 61,000 deaths compared to the same time last year.

At many junctures, the media has faced backlash and criticism from governmental institutions for reporting the truth. Recently, a bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud was hearing the poll panel’s plea challenging the Madras HCs “murder charges” remark. The Madras High Court had rebuked the Election Commission of India for allowing political rallies amidst a deadly second wave of Covid-19. 

The HC observed that the institution was solely responsible for the second wave of Covid-19. “Election Commission officers should be booked on murder charges.” The EC had demanded that media should not be allowed to report on oral observations of the court.

Adding to this, what would be a dreadful sight ordinarily only exposed the true extent of the pandemic. When rains earlier this month exposed more than 2,000 corpses of COVID-19 infected victims on the banks of Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, the media reported these “mass-shallow graves” bravely. 

One can only imagine the utter despair and remorse the journalists reporting this would have felt. Such horrific scenes can hamper anybody’s mental health.

Not only this. The media has also boosted health information campaigns and has tried to curb misinformation regarding COVID-19. Doctors, through the media, have dispelled many myths related to COVID-19 vaccines.

When the Ministry of Health contradicted the use of the vaccine in pregnant females considering the lack of studies on this, doctors spread awareness through the media that since pregnancy with Covid was a very high-risk condition, it was recommended that the benefit of the vaccine be extended to pregnant females as well. 

The Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) has also advised that all pregnant females get vaccinated as soon as possible. When myths were being spread about vaccines affecting women’s fertility and menstruation, the media reported all such claims to be false, only creating more vaccine hesitancy. 

Moreover, fake viral trends were going on about increasing oxygenation. The media reported a camphor message going viral on social media for several days as reports of an oxygen crisis poured in from different parts of the country. There was no scientific evidence to back this claim.

The media also debunked the baseless claim of BJP MP Pragya Thakur when she said she takes cow urine every day. “If we have desi gau mutra (urine from an indigenous cow) every day, then it cures lung infection from Covid. I am in deep pain, but I take cow urine every day. So now, I don’t have to take any medicine against corona, and I don’t have corona,” Pragya Thakur is heard telling a party gathering.

“Cow urine is a life-saver,” says Thakur. The Indian Medical Association has said there is no scientific evidence that cow dung or urine helps with the treatment or prevention of Covid.

When the media has played so many roles, it is high-time journalists are classified as essential workers. But we can only hope.

India has been listed under countries considered “bad” for journalism. According to Reporters Without Borders, it is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, which published its 2021 World Press Freedom Index recently.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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