The world is battling a pandemic at its worst moment – when it’s ill-prepared to tackle it. And, unfortunately, it has not exempted even the world’s developed economies with robust healthcare systems.
But beneath the harrowing tales that have gripped the world, a particular cadre of professionals – journalists – have largely been forgotten. Even as regimes devise mechanisms to conquer the pandemic, deliberations in boardrooms have mainly revolved around offering an extra layer of protection to medics, frontline workers, and those deemed most vulnerable – the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Media professionals have largely been ignored, at least in the East African context. They have instead become an afterthought. Yet, despite being put on the back burner, they have braved it all. With great courage in the face of adversity, reporters have gone the extra mile to tell the story of the pandemic to the world.
They have risked their lives visiting Covid-19 patients in hospital wards, travelling far and wide to document and tell mostly depressing and, in some cases, uplifting stories. Tragically some have paid the ultimate price. Here are some Kenyan journalists who have survived to tell their story.
Gentrix Oduor: ‘We were thrown into the deep end – none was prepared’
Science and Health reporter at Radio Citizen, one of Royal Media Services radio networks, Oduor is one of the most accomplished radio health reporters. She has covered numerous health assignments for the health beat segment on Radio Citizen, from Nairobi, Marsabit and Tana River – to some of the far-flung arid areas of Kenya.
Naturally, with that kind of experience, she has developed a thick skin to deal with the shocks and dreadful tales that come with the job. However, nothing prepared her for Covid-19 reporting.
“I remember when the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya (on March 13, 2020), I was at work. Everyone was shocked, and so was I,” Gentrix said. She confessed that, like everyone else, she did not know much about the virus, but the editorial management tasked her and her colleagues at health beat to cover the pandemic at the end of the day.
“I remember going to press briefings nearly every single day at Afya House (the headquarters of Kenya’s Ministry of Health). But, alarmingly, with each presser, the numbers – new infections and the death toll – kept rising,” Gentrix reminisces. The danger was that she would use public transport to and from work or the press briefings, incredibly exposing her to the risk of contracting the virus.
But that is not all; the most chilling part was that covering the pandemic required some form of preparedness. “We were thrown into the deep end. No one was prepared for this. Not our employer or even the government – we could all see that.”
She remembers some decisions that were made as mere reactions. “At work, too, we had challenges,” Gentrix added.
Looking back, she believes that the government could have implemented some of the directives, such as working from home much earlier. Such a move would have protected professionals at greater risk of contracting the virus, including journalists like her.
“We all knew it was inevitable. It caused trouble to many, and it still does. Covering the [health] beat has not only been challenging but eye-opening at the same time. I’d do lots of research by googling about the disease and its symptoms, but it was never enough at the end of the day,” Gentrix told the EAST site, adding that she wished they would have been well-briefed on this (Covid-19 coverage).
“Support measures, such as counselling, should probably have been given more consideration,” Oduor said, admitting that she’s lucky not to have contracted the virus at its peak when Kenya would record up to 1,800 cases daily.
With the virus ravaging, the government took stern measures like imposing a partial lockdown in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and some other major cities to slow down the spread of the virus. However, this move directly affected the economy and destabilized businesses. Gentrix’s employer, like nearlly every major media house in Kenya imposed pay cuts as revenues shrunk
Presently, Oduor and most of her colleagues have been vaccinated against the virus, hoping that it will offer an extra layer of protection.
Tabitha Rotich: ‘There are people who still don’t believe the virus exists’
Like her colleague Gentrix, Tabita Rotich has been at the frontline covering Covid-19. Part of her task at the health beat is monitoring the global figures and trends and attending the Ministry of Health’s daily briefing. She also spends considerable time researching and debunking misconceptions about Covid-19. “It’s been tough, wrought with lots of challenges but also a learning curve,” Tabitha told the EAST site. “I think the government approach hasn’t been ‘A’ class, but they tried to rally the masses.”
Tabitha said the major challenge she faced while covering the pandemic was and still is the misconceptions. “There are people who didn’t and still don’t believe that the virus exists. So, as journalists, it became our duty to deconstruct the myths and tell the facts, with a view of informing, educating and empowering the masses,” she said.
The Kenyan government feted Tabitha for her in-depth reporting by awarding her the Uzalendo Award on June 1, 2020, when Kenya celebrated Madaraka Day (a day to mark Kenya’s self-rule attainment from the British colonial authorities).
Beldeen Waliaula: ‘Training health reporters will empower them’
For Beldeen Waliaula, a Health and Science Reporter at Standard Group, covering the pandemic was a welcome experience. “Having an interest in pursuing health stories, Covid-19 came as a saving grace,” Beldeen said. “When I started covering Covid-19 stories, it was not about the numbers, but how it has impacted people’s lives and the health sector. It was an exciting venture at first; talking to Kenyans and experts made me amass information every day.” She said she has never been afraid of contracting the virus but feels lucky not to have tested positive yet, with all the exposure.
But as she strived to tell the stories, Beldeen realized that she needed to change her approach at one point.
“By the end of last year, Covid-19 fatigue set in. Every day, it felt like you are repeating yourself just to avert the newsroom pressure of delivering stories daily,” Beldeen said, noting that the other challenge was the stigma. Very few people were open to talking about their experience with the virus, and there was no personal protective equipment for journalists going out to the field.
“I remember confronting our human resource department because the company could not provide an extra pair of facemask, yet I was being assigned to go to an area with high numbers of infections.”
According to Beldeen, the challenge to date is the lack of facilitation from newsrooms to cover stories, lack of protective equipment and training on how to continue covering these stories safely.
“The Kenyan media still greatly depends on the Ministry of Health for information on Covid-19, which sometimes is erratic and difficult to verify,” she added.
With the experience earned covering the pandemic, Beldeen has a word of caution to media professionals. “As a journalist, your mental health is critical. It’s okay to say no when it comes to covering stories that will negatively impact your health,” said Beldeen.
“I don’t cover mental health stories anymore, and when possible, I avoid ‘sorry or sad cancer stories. But, in addition to that, watching human beings suffer while seeking basic healthcare in a country they pay tax daily doesn’t sit well with me.” She is, however, convinced that training journalists on how to cover and report on the pandemic will go a long way in empowering them.
Mohammed Hammie is not your typical reporter. In 2019, the young Tanzanian swapped from being a regular journalist to media for community empowerment and has since specialised in telling stories about the human right to access clean drinking water, particularly in rural areas.
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