With the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic underway in Pakistan, many media workers are bracing for more infections and more issues. At a time when the media is already under pressure from the ongoing financial crisis, this second wave will cause many more difficulties for media employees.
Several journalists and media workers in Pakistan have been infected and recovered from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. Karachi Union of Journalists’ (KUJ) President Syed Hassan Abbas and several other union members were affected earlier this year as they helped journalists during the first wave, distributing food rations to KUJ members and non-members. After they were forced into isolation, their work was continued by volunteers including KUJ General Secretary Aajiz Jamali, who attempted to bring some relief to journalists and media workers in these tough times.
PFUJ President GM Jamali, Secretary General Rana Azeem and their teams visited different unions of journalists around the country to determine their needs during this period, and trying to provide them with as much support as possible. During the pandemic many journalists and media workers are feeling extremely stressed, especially with the increasing financial challenges. The PFUJ has been in touch with management from different organisations to ensure that no media worker is laid off during these times. Efforts are being made to provide those who have lost jobs or endured salary cuts with some alternate means to support their families.
According to a soon to be released survey conducted by KUJ headed by Syed Hassan Abbas as president, 562 journalists and media workers tested positive in the first wave of the outbreak.
The highest number of cases in Karachi was at BOL News Network, with 140 positive cases of which 51 were journalists.
The survey report shows that despite the large number of cases, media organisations did little or nothing to help infected employees – in most cases they were not facilitated in any way and told to quarantine at home with no financial support or medical care.
Some media houses were more proactive in their assistance, including Dawn News and Group, Geo-Jang Group and Express Group.
Two coronavirus survivors speak about this.
Syed Sibte Hassan Rizvi, a reporter with Hum News Television, recently recovered from the coronavirus infection. He was put quarantine after constantly working in the field since the viral outbreak. “As a health reporter, I was pretty engaged with the hospitals during the pandemic,” he said. “We used masks and gloves if necessary. And I also have tried not to interact with people physically for interviews. But it's not possible for all to do this. Not everyone can send us sound bites. It’s difficult for a TV reporter to work without a SOT (sound on tape).”
Media organizations struggle to provide adequate support to workers, who are only given leave until their coronavirus test results are deemed negative. Rizvi said he brought his own mask to work, although they are also available for Rs10 (US 6 cents) in the office.
Being a coronavirus survivor Sibte advises others, “Just take care of yourself. Try not to interact with the sources physically. Tell them if feasible they can share their video versions on mobile so you can make in-house reports.”
“And yes,” he adds, “whenever you come back home follow SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) with your family. I am not scared by Covid-19 but it has spread to my father and mother. That feeling is horrible.”
Replying to whether his organization offered tests for infected employees, Sibte said they had with the help of a government team.” I have been tested negative in that test but eventually I got symptoms so I got tested from AKU (Aga Khan University Hospital) and was positive. I went into isolation before the test just to keep others around me safe.”
He stressed that it was up to journalists to first and foremost to protect themselves. “No one will help you. HELP yourself,” Sibte said.
Noreen Zehra, senior producer at Geo News, was coronavirus positive in the first wave in Pakistan. She has since been working in the newsroom where SOPs are strictly enforced.
“The time when I contracted the virus, I was the only one leaving the house so it's likely I got it being outdoors, but that does not exclude the possibility of getting it at the office,” Zehra said. “But there are other places one comes in contact with while travelling etc. so one can't say for sure.”
Speaking about the precautions and SOPs followed at work, Zehra said employees’ temperatures are checked at the entrance and masks, gloves and sanitizers are supplied. “I observed all these SOPs prior to getting infected. When I got infected, I completely went underground to protect my other family members. I had separate plates/spoons etc…. still sanitized everything before going back to my room.”
Zehra determined she contracted the virus through the tests conducted by her media organisation for its employees.. “The HR and my senior management stayed in touch with me ... provided with me every support. I got to find out no other organization in the industry was providing this (to their employees).”
“My organization very responsibly tested whoever was in contact with the ones diagnosed with Covid and they isolated people and also kept a check on their family’s health updates. All my repeat tests were conducted at home ... the organization arranged for those, sent me the team till the time I recovered,” Zehra said.
Now that the second phase of coronavirus virus has arrived and experts are saying this wave will be deadlier than before. This is the time for media houses to put plans into action so that more people can be protected and still get work done on time.
After more than 10 months of dealing with the virus, media organizations have no reason not to be equipped to support employees in quarantine. . Regular tests for employees working in offices and in the field should also be arranged, as well as providing proper safety equipment.
The health of employees is directly proportional to the success of the organizations they work in. Therefore, employees should be treated as precious assets by media organizations. Local unions should join forces with the national union – PFUJ – to put pressure on media organizations to provide the employees with extraordinary facilities during these extraordinary times.
( Lubna Naqvi is a freelance journalist and Joint Secretary of Karachi Union of Journalists.)