24-30 April 2015 #755

Running with the herd

To suggest that the state has remained a mere spectator in Jajarkot is not just wrong, it is selective reporting
Tsering Dolker Gurung
Three weeks after an outbreak of influenza in Jajarkot, news about the movement of maverick doctor, Govinda KC, in the district made it to front pages of every major Nepali daily newspaper this week.

A photo of the doctor’s arrival at the Nepalganj airport from where he was to drive to Jajarkot on Monday was widely shared on social media, with many journalists labeling him a ‘hero’, and belittling the government’s response so far.

The hunger-striking doctor has our deepest respect for his tireless effort to reform the medical education system. KC went to Jajarkot despite being advised by his physicians not to due to health issues related to his 11-day hunger strike this month.

However, the spotlight on KC put in the shadows the work of dozens of other local doctors and health workers in Jajarkot since day one. They have been working in appalling conditions with shortages of everything, yet they have saved countless lives.

One of them is assistant health worker Ram Krishna Giri, who personally treated over 1,200 patients at Paink village before getting infected with swine flu himself. Giri was brought to Teku’s Sukra Raj Tropical Hospital this week, where his condition is stable.

IN ISOLATION: Health worker Ram Krishna Giri treated hundreds of patients before he himself was infected with swine flu. He is now recuperating at a hospital in Kathmandu. Photo: Gopen Rai

“We have a dedicated team which has been working tirelessly to treat as many people as possible,” Giri told Nepali Times from his hospital bed on Tuesday. Paink is one of the worst-affected villages in Jajarkot, and the health post there has eight personnel treating patients round-the-clock. Not surprisingly, Giri and his colleagues have never made it to the front pages of the Kathmandu papers.

Instead, the coverage has centred around the government’s inefficiency, apathy and neglect. It’s true that the Health Ministry could have done more, much faster. But given the remoteness of the area, the state of governance in the country, and the nature of the epidemic, the health professionals at Ground Zero did a commendable job in limiting the fatalities.

Yet, instead of lauding that effort the media acted like a lynch mob to discredit them. The most thoroughly demoralised people in Nepal today are Jajarkot’s health workers. Instead of informing the people about the disease, presenting the facts on the ground, Kathmandu newspapers tried to outdo each other with sensational and exaggerated headlines. It spread panic, disheartened service providers and buried the truth.

Yes, the Health Ministry should have immediately set up a rapid response team, learning lessons from the Jajarkot cholera outbreak in 2009 that killed more than 200 people in the district. This would have meant that the flu virus could have been identified earlier.

But to suggest that the state has remained a mere spectator is not just wrong, it is selective reporting. The media was on a political agenda-setting mode and reporters had to bend their coverage to suit the slant that editors in Kathmandu needed.

Two days after the epidemic was confirmed by the Department of Epidemiology and Disease Control, Health Minister Khagaraj Adhikari flew to Jajarkot on 12 April with CA members from the district and a team of doctors. Since then, 13 doctors from Nepal Army, Armed Police Force, and Nepal Medical Association are in Jajarkot to augment the health posts.

Journalists in a democracy are taught to play the ‘adversarial role’ and to ‘afflict the comfortable’, but that can’t be done by sacrificing facts. Government bashing is staple fare for many journalists, and it often needs to be bashed, but there cannot be a knee-jerk reaction when the facts point in the other direction.

An outbreak like this needs much more specialised knowledge of epidemiology, about how influenza struck those whose immunity had already been suppressed by malnutrition, TB, chronic diarrhoea or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But that seems to be asking too much of Nepal’s over-politicised mainstream generalists.


Read also:

Jajarkot’s unsung heroes, Om Astha Rai

Learning from Jajarkot, Om Prasad Gautam

Swine flu in Jajarkot

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