Journalists reflect on a year of crisis coverage

Bhawana Gurung interviews a resident of Matatirtha in Kathmandu.

The first person infected with SARS-CoV-2 was in Wuhan as far back as December 2019, but it was not until late January that there was international concern, and it was finally declared a pandemic in February. In the thick of it was Nepali journalist Bibek Bhandari, working at Shanghai-based Sixth Tone as news editor.

“My last day in the office was on 23 January before the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday,” Bhandari recalls. “It was cold and drizzling when I left work that evening. We had already been writing extensively about the novel coronavirus, and the holidays were grim.”  

Shanghai was not just deserted, but there was an air of despair and fear hanging over the city. Bhandari and his colleagues covering the holiday shift were told to work from home.

“We were all living in the unknown, trying to figure out what the news the next day would bring,” says Bhandari, who flew to Nepal in February and was supposed to go back on 31 March. By then, Nepal was in lockdown and all flights halted. He was stuck in Kathmandu till September.

In Nepal itself, journalists were also forced to adapt. Bhawana Gurung and Asha Thapa decided to use the lockdown period to start a podcast from their home to disseminate health information.

“As soon as we heard about Covid-19, we felt there was a gap in lifesaving information. We thought a podcast would be an effective medium,” says Gurung who runs Sankatma Sathi with Thapa, about safety during the pandemic.

“We recorded our first episode in bed, on the phone,” laughs Thapa, who spent the first five months of the lockdown at her home in Matatirtha, producing stories from her neighbourhood. The podcast, targeted at a rural Nepali audience, was soon hooked up by 20 community radio stations.

But working from home comes with its own challenges. “In the beginning it was fun because I could work from bed, but eventually, you’re always staring at your four walls, especially if you live alone,” says Gurung.

In India, however, the opposite was true for Hashim (who goes by his first name), a journalist with Data Leads in New Delhi. He says, “Everyone is not privileged. If you’re living in a one-BHK (one bedroom, hall and kitchen) apartment in Noida with six family members, it can be challenging.”

Hashim was also filming tutorials for journalists on reporting from home, which required him to turn his home into a makeshift studio. “You’re constantly asking everyone to quiet down during recordings and online meetings. It can take a toll on your family,” he says. “And if you’re freelancing, it is hard to sell a story without the Covid angle.”

In India, 44 journalists died due to the virus, which made Hashim himself aware of his own mortality. He has not left his Delhi neighbourhood for six months as he continues to mine data for journalistic videos from home, while skipping to stay fit. “I’m exercising for the first time in my life,” he says on WhatsApp.

Locked away in his apartment in Kuala Lumpur for four months, Bhutanese journalist Jigmey Thinley was running up and down the stairs of his condo as the gym was closed. He was working for the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development in Malaysia when the pandemic hit, and decided it was time to head home.

He arrived home in Thimphu in September, as Bhutan relaxed the lockdown temporarily.  But as a new national lockdown came into effect in Bhutan on 23 December in response to a second wave, Thinley and his colleagues found that they could no longer go home after work.

“We stay at the office these days. We all brought our own bedding. We’ve turned our offices into working rooms-cum-bedrooms,” says Thinley, now General Manager of News and Current Affairs at Bhutan Broadcasting Service.

Logistic adjustments have been a universal experience for journalists elsewhere in Asia in 2020. Ruth Cabal works for CNN in Manila and had to manage from a temporary studio at home in the initial days of reporting COVID-19.

“I live with my brother so he set up the camera with my phone and all,” says Cabal. “My Viber app served as the teleprompter because the scripts from the producer would be posted there.”

Also a professor at the University of Philippines, Cabal says her broadcasts were punctuated by signal hiccups. She also had to do her own make-up while broadcasting from home and the coffees that constantly accompanied her in the live studio, was missing.

But the media industry has adapted well to the situation, she says, “When there’s a typhoon, a civilian stays away, but the opposite is true for journalists. We go to where the typhoon is supposed to make landfall. These are the kind of events journalists are trained for.” 

The ‘infodemic’ and disinformation that accompanied the pandemic have been other major challenges for the media industry, as online time went up globally.

“During the lockdown, getting access to information is difficult. While we focus on the pandemic, there are many other, equally important issues that we could miss out on,” says Bhutan’s Jigmey Thinley.

Which is why the pandemic has made the job of journalists all the more important, Ruth Cabal says, adding: “It is up to journalists to properly vet information and be aggressive in trying to interview the right people to give accurate information.”

While the medium they work in may be different, journalists across Asia have been driving towards the same goal: sharing information that brings relief and hope to the public, sometimes at the cost of their own psychological and physical wellbeing. 

“It’s probably one of the biggest stories of our times globally. This means that a lot of journalists may have had to work relentlessly and with limited resources. We’ve heard stories about burnouts and then some pretty disheartening news about the layoffs,” says Bibek Bhandari, the Nepali journalist in Shanghai.

Even with all the challenges, those doing crisis coverage have tried to find comfort in their vocation.

“We did a lot of learning and creating together with colleagues, who went on to become good friends by the end of lockdown,” says podcaster Bhawana Gurung. “It’s been a year of tracing common grounds to heal — for our audience as well as for ourselves.”

Shanghai-based journalist Bibek Bhandari.

Pratibha Tuladhar