A virus and a scholar

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

The job of a Readers’ Editor is not exactly designed to make the incumbent’s ratings soar in the office popularity charts. After all, perched on the lofty peaks of objectivity, this person often has to pronounce judgements on his or her colleagues.

This week, however, one reader has handed me a brilliant (and rare?) opportunity to make myself less unpopular. “HT has helped fuel the panic over swine flu,” said this reader in a letter that landed in our inboxes on Saturday evening.

Given that the headline of the lead story on the front page just the previous day was ‘It is time to stop the panic’, the response made me wonder whether the reader had got us mixed up with some other newspaper.

In any case, this does give me an opportunity to talk about our coverage of the swine flu outbreak. Overall, in the 12 days since August 4, when we reported India’s first death related to the H1N1 virus, our coverage has been a textbook example of how to cover a public health crisis intelligently and responsibly.

During the first week, we merely reported the developments. We reported the most important facts on the front page and devoted one page inside to related stories. The space we gave the subject itself ought to have revealed our restraint, in comparison to what other media were doing. More important, while panic is unwarranted under any circumstance, we were the first to argue, based on the views of several experts, that it was not a huge public health crisis, and to put this outbreak in historical and global perspective.

To show that this was the case, let me just repeat some of our lead front-page headlines and straps.

AUGUST 11: Headline: ‘H1N1 kills 3 more, common flu could be killing 572 a day’ Strap: US death toll is 436 but no schools are closed. Main reason: Closing schools does not help’

AUGUST 12: Headline: ‘Four more deaths, but is it swine flu alone?’ Strap: Many deaths attributed to late diagnosis and treatment, other complications

AUGUST 13: Headline: ‘Rattled Mumbai hunts for calm’ Strap: Schools, colleges, multiplexes closed; experts say emotional response to reduce panic won’t contain spread

AUGUST 14: ‘It is time to stop the panic’

I rest my case. If I have one criticism of the coverage, it is that the first well-rounded article evaluating the real public health risk that swine flu posed came many days too late. I would have agreed if a reader had said we should done what we did a bit sooner. But otherwise, the headlines speak for themselves.

Having probably become too popular for my own good, I will now make amends, by responding to a letter by a thoughtful and careful HT reader, Usha Subramanian. “While the Marathi press saw fit to pay tribute to Nalini Pandit in their editorials after her recent demise, HT and the English press failed to take notice,” she wrote. “Pandit was a highly respected Maharashtrian scholar on caste and class, who was ahead of her times.

“Do you ignore her demise because even though some of her books were translated into English, she largely wrote in Marathi?”

I asked the person in HT who I think is best placed to respond to this criticism, Senior Associate Editor Vaibhav Purandare, for his opinion.

“Not reporting the death of a scholar like Nalini Pandit was a clear miss on our part, and the fact that just a few of her works are available in English cannot be an excuse,” he said. “Nilu Phule acted mainly in Marathi movies but we reported on his demise and wrote about his contribution to cinema, and we did the same with music composer Bhaskar Chandavarkar (who, of course, did not compose music only for Marathi songs).

“Pandit was a left-leaning intellectual noted for her examination of Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s life, as well as her critique of globalisation. We should have taken note.” I have only this to add to Purandare’s remarks. While regular readers of this column will know that I am no fan of this state’s nativist parties, I think the miss is the result of a larger problem, which is that HT Mumbai does not, in general, do enough to cover Marathi culture.


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