Chennai Floods

What the celeb-obsessed media missed in its Chennai flood reports: Survival tips for victims

The media have been filled with with a lot of great photos of people being rescued, but there was little advice on how to avoid water-borne diseases.

I was reading the newspapers between bursts of heavy rains, the occasional power shortage and some vitamin D withdrawal caused by the lack of sun in the ferociously dark monsoon season that has flooded Chennai. Two items caught me eye. On the right hand, the newspaper informed me that Hollywood talent James Franco and his brother Dave are going to star together in the movie The Disaster Artist. On the left hand side, I read, “Celebs tweet for Chennai.”

I couldn’t help making some links between the headline on James Franco and the story about actweets ‒ actors who tweet. One Kollywood actress felt really sad and tweeted that she didn’t know “who to blame or what to blame for what is happening. It’s not their fault they are suffering.” Sad face. “The runway is clogged and it’s almost an emergency situation in Chennai.” Almost an emergency situation in Chennai? Disaster Artists, get your story straight.

In the last few days I’ve seen angry packs of dogs prowling the flooded streets; middle-class shirty-pants feverishly filling up sacks of sand to protect their homes against the rising water; poor fishermen rummaging through the beaches by the Adyar river to scavenge for the debris of their homes so they can build new shacks. Employers told me they couldn’t pay their workers because banks were out of cash. ATMs were not dispensing money to stranded people who need to buy tickets to leave a city threatened by polluted waters, voracious potholes and possible epidemics. A city where corpses were kept in SUVs or found floating in basements and where flooded hospitals couldn’t keep patients alive. A city where hundreds of people have drowned, lakhs have lost their homes and two million have been affected. This isn’t counting the economic losses of a metropolis where 80%  of Indian cars are assembled and has an IT corridor whose future is now more uncertain.

But it’s almost an emergency to Disaster Artists. That’s why they tweet about it. Smh (shaking my head)!

The problem

A real crisis like this one should finally have forced the media to drop the silly device it is so quick to employ ‒ that of giving actors the role of pontificating leaders, analysts and guides. For some reason, journalists often forgot that most people in show biz are only acting like leaders and guides. That’s why they are called actors.

But the deployment of this strategy is a reflection of the media’s need to cover a disaster area not with the desire to be of service to a population in distress but to create emotions and sell copies, create audience, increase numbers. To charm readers, to entertain them. But not help them, really.

This, however unfortunate, might be acceptable in normal times. But not in emergencies. So, instead of focusing on useful, clear, essential information on how not to get killed by the flood, it’s all about “the fighting spirit of the city”, the “Chennai rising” and the “Chennai fights back”. It’s all about the narrative itself of how great our people are in face of incompetence and disaster. Look, celebs are tweeting about it! It’s all about celebrating pride and courage, instead of providing information on how to minimise damage. Precedence is given to the script, not to reality. It’s more about “Relentless Tollywood taking donation tallies to new heights” instead of providing credible death tolls.

The thrust of the story of flooded Chennai seems to be about Kollywood celebs getting clicked while being heroic in the snake- and scorpion-infested waters on the flooded roads. Our heroes who are just like us, and stoop in the muck when its needed. That’s why we love them, they represent our best side, right? The story has become about the “Mozart of Madras,” a famous composer who, we’re told, is distributing food to those affected and donating lakhs for Chennai sinking. Or about the actress who “escaped the calamity in the city,” but found time “to post a bikini-clad selfie” while “having a whale of a time at Goa with her best buddies”.

Advertising charity

Shouldn’t we begin to question the need to publicise charity? Why is it necessary to brand help and donations with the names and images of donors? Because they, the donors, want something back, of course. And what they want is gratitude. From the recipients and from the people who admire them for being so generous, while reading a story about how humane they are. But that makes the charity slightly less noble, doesn’t it? Why not establish that only anonymous donations can be made in times of emergency? Why not take away all pictures and brands from packets, so as not to make the victims feel indebted, as well as up to their neck in crud? Now, that would be philanthropic. Just print “RICE”, “WATER” and “BEANS”. It would be generous beyond reproach. But untweetable.

I’m convinced that a positive attitude is essential for a good outcome in any endeavour, yet I’m dumbfounded by the fact that the so-called legacy media these days have been so busy singing the glories of the “resilient” (that’s the trendy word of the 2015 floods) character of the victims, who actually should not have been forced to fend for themselves and to trust only their resilience, but should’ve been helped by trained emergency professionals much sooner. They should have also reached the national headlines and newscasts before dying by the hundreds.

The official media have been filling their precious and limited spaces with a lot of great photos of people being rescued, of drama stories, but I found little useful information like, for example, reminding constantly and clearly to the population that the healthy choice is to avoid drinking water in a flooded area. About the urgency to bring seal-capped water bottles to flood victims. Or explaining what “water-borne diseases” are and how to possibly avoid them. This only started to be printed or broadcast much later, once the water had somewhat retreated.

Newspapers in times of blackouts really would have a chance (and a duty, I believe) to take back their central role, especially in days with no mobile phone connections. There’s been little of the sort in papers distributed in Chennai until today.

Maybe it’s because it would dampen the morale. Break the resilience. Some news sites have been even embarrassing. One headline beats them all: “A flooded city rises to the occasion, no blame game, backs government's rescue & relief efforts.” The report goes on in a risible tone: “The affected residents are showing a remarkable patience and statesman like attitude. All of them agree that floods in Chennai was (sic) unimaginable and nobody had expected this.” Proof to the contrary, fortunately for the sake of truth, is amply available. But, again, mostly online.

Which brings out the point that without Internet we would have not seen that blond cow flying outside Narendra Modi’s airplane window, in a Photoshop spoof mocking the government media office’s decision to paste a photo of floods in the background of a photo of the prime minister flying over Chennai.

Also, we would’ve never found out about an ageing actress’s need to have her photographs pasted on bags of food and staples actually provided by NGOs and other organisations. These sort of news items wouldn’t have made it to the front page of newspapers five years ago, when social media didn’t make it mandatory to report them.

The paper of record

Apparently, according to The Hindu, it was some “unruly elements” who forced Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s stickers on rice and supply bags arriving in Chennai. Unruly elements? One is forced to question the motives of such unruly elements, and once you get to the bottom of that question it’s hard to consider them deserving of that word: “unruly.”  But The Hindu was busy publishing a piece about how great the reporting of The Hindu has been in capturing the resilience of flooded Chennai. Bit much.

The media nowadays can’t be bothered with “blame games.” That’s so negative!

But what could actually be more positive than constructive criticism aimed at improvement?

I wonder what Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, would think of a report like this alleged “positive-thinking” one from IBN-CNN: “No government could have avoided the catastrophe and the city's residents are staying away from politicising it. It is something unheard of in an eternally outraged country like India. The random callers who contacted television channels with their stories are generally happy with the government response. A caller said, ‘The government is doing very well. These are extraordinary times. No government could have avoided the crisis of this magnitude.’ ”

See, flood victims are “generally happy with the government response.”

What did I tell you? Be resilient. Think positive. The water will recede. Eventually.

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