In mid-April, a journalist in India’s eastern state Bihar, which borders Nepal, came back home from work with a fever. A few days later, 40-year-old Guddu Rai was breathless and his oxygen levels fell drastically. His family struggled to find him a spot in a medical care clinic in Bihar’s capital city Patna. The facility waited two days to test Rai for COVID-19.
Rai died a day after his test result came back positive. Rai worked as a stringer for the Hindi daily Hindustan Samachar and has left behind two daughters and a six-year-old son.
“We ran from pillar to post to get him tested. He died after he finally got admitted to an Intensive Critical Unit,” Rai’s brother Ganpath told VICE World News.
His family believes he could have been saved, if he had been vaccinated or if he was tested and treated for COVID-19 promptly.
His story isn’t an anomaly.
Nilakshi Bhattacharji worked for the Times of India and her husband Kalyan Barooah was the Delhi correspondent of the Assam Tribune. They both died from COVID-19 complications days apart from each other.
A close friend of the couple, Utpal Borpujari, who is a filmmaker, said the journalists were being treated at a hospital in India’s capital.
“Kalyan continued to work before he got sick and his last outing was to the Press Club in New Delhi. His wife was working from home. But eventually they all contracted the virus, including their only daughter,” Borjapuri told VICE World News. “Although both received all possible treatment, the hospital they were being treated at was facing a shortage of oxygen.”
In India’s deadly second wave of COVID-19, which is taking a life every four minutes, multiple groups that track journalist fatalities have said that more than 125 journalists died from COVID-19 in April alone.
Kalyan was a trusted member of the Press Club in India, where he was cherished for the insight he brought being from Assam, a northeast state which is often made to feel isolated from the rest of the country.
Going through the Twitter account of the Press Club is like scrolling an obituary feed. The last few weeks, almost every day, the account has been posting tributes to journalists who died from COVID-19 complications.
Some estimates are even higher. The New Delhi-based Institute of Perception Studies (IPS) listed 139 journalists who died of COVID-19 complications in April.
“Every name put on the list is after verification, which includes collecting and collating data, and making calls to acquaintances for cross referencing,” Kota Neelima from the IPS told VICE World News. “Journalists are almost directly in contact with the pandemic and tragically the numbers are only rising.” Neelima added that their list only has journalists who are well-known or worked for bigger organisations.
According to another list, which is updated every five minutes by the Network of Women in Media in India, 175 journalists died in April due to COVID-19. The list includes writers, camera operators, editors, stringers, freelancers and others who work in media across all states in India.
With nearly 400,000 people getting infected by COVID-19 every day in India – the highest daily rates of infection in the world – journalists are struggling to cover the story safely while keeping their families safe.
While many media organisations in India have not issued strict work from home policies for its journalists, the situation is different for reporters working for international publications. “I try my best to dig out the story over phone and video calls,” Suhasini Raj, a reporter for the New York Times in Delhi told VICE World News.
“We have not been stepping out in this wave as per our company policy. I call sources, doctors, hunt out numbers of patients, and tap into any and every source to get the story,” said Raj, who went on to explain how he deployed a rickshaw driver to go to crematories in Ahmedabad to verify the death toll there. “The driver handed a phone to the clerks giving out death certificates so I could find out the exact count from at least five cemeteries.”
A Geneva-based media rights group the Press Emblem Campaign reported that India is among the top three countries globally when it comes to journalist deaths from COVID-19 complications.
The media watchdog has listed at least 125 journalists who died of the infection in the month of April. The report quotes the situation as “alarming and heartbreaking” and said more than four journalists are dying per day. “In the past two weeks, at least 50 journalists have succumbed to the virus, on average three to four every day.”
The countries topping the list are Brazil with more than 183 deaths reported and Peru with nearly 140 deaths, the report said.
“It is extremely difficult in these times to keep a track of all the deaths and particularly from the states since all the focus is on a few big states,” Neelima from IPS said.
Media watchdogs, including the Press Club of India have urged the government to consider journalists as “frontline warriors” and prioritise vaccinating all media workers.
“The media’s job is to reach out to the world. Now it is time the world reaches out to them. The Indian government must ensure support to both accredited or non-accredited journalists,” Neelima said.
The Press Information Bureau (PIB) of India, a nodal agency of the Ministry of Information, announced the Journalists Welfare Scheme which will provide support to families of government-accredited journalists who passed away from COVID-19 complications.
“All reporters should be declared as frontline workers,” Vinay Kumar, the General Secretary Press Club of India told VICE World News. “The numbers are alarming. Every day we are only tweeting about obituaries of our colleagues. ” He said, so far, the government has not responded to their demands to vaccinate all journalists as a priority.
Neelima also believes the definition of who is a journalist has to be expanded. “Anyone who is bringing out news in such a crisis or is a part of the collective effort to do so, is a frontline worker and is as important as a healthcare worker.”