Gorakhpur has been the most important headline the past week. It cannot be otherwise for, as the columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote on the eve of India’s 71st Independence Day, the tragedy is a mirror to what India is today: “A nation without common decency, common practicality and basic compassion.”

It was the media – the news agency ANI – that brought out the story of the spike in deaths of children at the BRD Hospital. As many as 60 children died in the hospital between August 7 and August 11, of whom 23 infants and children died on the night of August 10 when the supply of piped oxygen dried up. The national and state media has kept at the story after that. Reporters of national dailies, television channels and digital publications like Scroll.in have travelled to Gorakhpur and written on the possible causes and the aftermath.

They have interrogated the government’s version, reported the tears of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, questioned the removal of the head of the pediatric ward and have now started reporting on the wider setting in which encephalitis has become endemic in eastern Uttar Pradesh and where the public health system is in a shambles.

Much like the rest of the media, in the first week Scroll.in put out close to 20 pieces on the deaths, the causes and the fallout, and its reporters had filed five.

The press in India as a whole has fortunately decided not to follow the example of the TV anchor on Times Now who initially made the shameful remark asking her panelists not to speak about Gorakhpur and instead speak about “real issues”.

Yet, is this all that needs to be done by a vigilant media?

No, it is not. One of the failures of the media is that its coverage of public issues is often episodic, and Gorakhpur is a good example.

Yesterday’s news

When there is a major incident of state violence, when the government fails to provide relief after a natural disaster or when there is a case of extreme corruption, the full force of Indian journalism is brought to bear on the government’s actions in that particular episode. But once the episode fades from public consciousness, the larger setting and causes of such extreme events are soon forgotten.

This seems to be most evident in health reporting and analyses.

Do we even remember how and why 62 people of Chhattisgarh lost their vision in 2013 at an eye camp for cataract strategies or the 13 women in the same state who lost their lives in 2014 at a sterilisation camp? Where is the reporting and analysis on why these camps sometimes result in major tragedies and whether there has been corrective action? Are these camps now more closely following, for instance, the guidelines laid down in the National Programme for Control of Blindness?

For many years, the economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen have been highlighting the fact that health occupies an insignificant part of democratic reasoning and discussion in India. This is so in spite of the fact that going by most indicators of health, India suffers very poorly in comparison with the rest of the world. In some respects, India does poorly even in South Asia and is falling behind Bangladesh.

Dreze and Sen have also argued that the press has contributed to this neglect of health in public discourse because it does so little to report on and flag problems in public health. In their 2014 book, An Uncertain Glory, they report, after monitoring the opinion pages of India’s largest English dailies in the second half of 2012, that only 1% of the articles – yes 1% – were about health. And that a similar analysis of child-related issues showed that “the interests of young children are virtually invisible in the mainstream media”.

This has not changed in the years since then. There is, to be sure, more reporting on health in the press. But much of the reporting again is either episodic or about insurance scams or drug prices or life-style diseases like obesity. There is even the occasional series in newspapers like this one, “Malady Nation”, in The Hindu earlier this year.

Yet, the larger and more important matter of public health, whose dismal state is the cause of the poor health status of a vast number of Indians, is simply missing in the media – other than when episodes like Gorakhpur happen.

Missing the big picture

Scroll.in has a separate section on health, Pulse. It has some fine reporting from the cities and from rural India. Still, it too does not give that much attention to India’s failing public health system. A scan of articles since early May showed me that while there were close to a dozen stories related to the Zika virus (after the detection in Ahmedabad), there were far fewer on the more day-to-day aspects of health and none on the working of a major programme like the National Health Mission. There were articles on Japanese encephalitis in Assam, dengue in Bihar, syndicated pieces on state government spending on health care and most recently on a village in Manipur whose residents were left without care after being struck by dengue, Japanese encephalitis and malaria.

There was one important article on the faltering operations of the National Tuberculosis Control Programme but that was based on an international non-governmental organisation’s report, though it was supplemented with some reporting.

After the Gorakhpur tragedy, almost all of the media attention has been on conditions at the BRD Hospital. There has been only the isolated reporting on the near absence of the primary health care system in Uttar Pradesh that is driving desperate parents to seek care at the last minute at tertiary hospitals like the BRD Hospital, which is neither meant to nor capable of handling epidemics.

As Dr Srinath Reddy, chairman of the Public Health Foundation, has written in one opinion piece appropriately titled “Beyond the Lament”, outrage is all very well but to prevent more Gorakhpurs “a cluster of corrective action” is needed because “Gorakhpur was only the acute manifestation of the chronic malady that ails our health system”.

The press has to make up for its decades of neglect of reporting on public health. Unless there is persistent coverage and analysis of the different dimensions of failures in public health, it is unlikely that things will have changed even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s New India comes round in 2022.

The Readers’ Editor can be contacted at readerseditor@scroll.in.