Green Templeton Lectures 2022 report
Hell and back: on the road with the pandemic

18 February 2022

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In the second lecture of the Green Templeton Lectures 2022, award-winning Indian television journalist Barkha Dutt explored the inequalities and journalistic flaws that COVID-19 exposed in India. Oxford PharmaGenesis Project Coordinator Holly Hickman and Group Communications Director Paul Farrow report on Dutt’s powerful series of personal stories.

Hell and back: on the road with the pandemic took place on Thursday 10 February and was the second of three lectures convened by University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The series is exploring the relationship between science and the media – a relationship that’s come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A humanitarian tragedy

In her lecture, Dutt observed that while the COVID-19 pandemic was initially seen as ‘a great equalizer that did not discriminate’, it exposed ingrained inequities and led to a humanitarian tragedy in India.

Following a national lockdown, many migrant workers – or ‘daily wagers’ – lost their income of about £2 per day, said Dutt, adding that in the first year of the pandemic, 230 million Indians were forced into poverty.

In the initial panic and the following closure of public transport, it’s thought that up to 100 million Indians left the cities to try to get home to their villages. This represented the largest mass exodus since the partition in 1947.

With no public transport, millions set out on journeys of up to 1000 km, some barefoot and carrying little more than their children and a bottle of water. If caught, migrant workers were repeatedly returned to the cities, sometimes by force.

Dutt noted how these people – determined to return home – truly believed that ‘the poverty will kill us before the virus will’.

Not just about numbers

Throughout the pandemic, stories from large broadcasters and information provided by the government focused on infection rates and the statistics of COVID-19.

“What we have done is flatten out this tragedy to make it about numbers. It’s about people”, said Dutt.

She asserted that there was very little information reported on the overall disruption to life, widespread food insecurity and challenges faced by many that rely on humanitarian aid.

Local journalism captured the grim reality of the pandemic with drone footage showing countless abandoned bodies and makeshift graves along the banks of the Gundar River, as the poverty and the stigma of COVID-19 drove families to leave their loved ones.

It also highlighted the disparity between the official and likely actual mortality. Some believe that the number of deaths in India may be ten times the figure officially reported, totalling around five million people – greater than the rest of the world combined.

What about the future?

Dutt reflected on the difficult ‘stay at home’ messaging that was widely recommended, when in India there is little to no infrastructure to support people to do this.

India is only just starting to re-open schools and public amenities. And with only 11% of the Indian population having access to a digital device, it begs the question of how many children have suffered developmental setbacks owing to enforced isolation during the pandemic.

After the health, economic and social devastation caused by COVID-19, India has a very long road to recovery ahead.

However, the economic recovery is not going to be the biggest challenge presented post-pandemic. The long-lasting psychological and psycho-social effects of COVID-19 on the population – as well as general mistrust in the government – are going to be the hardest to repair, with or without any attempt at mitigation.

As journalism is constantly morphing, presented with a multifaceted series of changes and a whole host of negative connotations, COVID-19 has not only exposed and highlighted the flaws of journalism, but has arguably provided the industry with an opportunity to reflect and enhance the credibility and integrity of future reportage.

Further lectures in the series

Oxford PharmaGenesis are proud sponsors of the Green Templeton Lectures 2022. The final lecture in the series will see Oxford Martin School’s Professor of Population Biology Sir Charles Godfray considering the roles that scientists play in the media. Oxford PharmaGenesis colleagues will attend, so look out for our report coming soon to our news pages.

You can also read our report on the first lecture in the series, in which international media manager and journalist Wolfgang Blau addressed the urgent need for newsrooms to improve how they report on climate change.