The Covid-19 situation reminds me of the movie Enemy at the Gates, which is about a rampaging German army fighting the Russians in Stalingrad. At one meeting, Russian military commanders discuss whether they should execute all their soldiers who flee the battlefield, as a warning to the others. One man disagrees. He says that Russia needs “an example – but an example to follow”. To transform the narrative from one of fear to one of hope, the country needed to create heroes to inspire its people.
Putting the plan into action, the army newspaper begins to paint the character played by Jude Law, an incredible sniper, as their protector on the battlefield and a national hero. This leads to a remarkable change in the morale of the troops and eventually victory.
Such strategies from history have a lot to teach us in our battle against Covid-19. Until now, the Indian Covid-19 account has been dominated by fear, and by stories of stigma and tragedy. However, now that it’s clear that Covid-19 is here to stay, we need to move towards “normalising” our lives around the disease.
Same stories, different light
We must move the narrative beyond just describing the problem and focus more on the solutions. Initially, we raised an alarm about the disease and its vast scale to ensure that the public was serious about the precautionary measures they needed to take. While this is still needed, we must present the same stories in a different light, now emphasising the action points.
The sensational headlines about the rising toll could also report the increased testing that actually improved case detection, a strategy that would encourage even more testing. The 24x7 Covid-19 dashboards on TV screens could also show state-wise data on tests per million, bed and ventilator availability, and other markers of the state response.
Instead of merely reporting the calamitous situation in the metros, there should also be discussions on the lessons other cities and towns could learn on how to be better prepared. Incidents like the one depicted in a viral video from Mumbai’s Sion hospital showing unattended bodies should be used to emphasise that the dead do not spread Covid-19 and to urge relatives to claim these bodies with dignity. Although critical analysis of every aspect remains important, it is time we consider how stories in the news can be used as opportunities to improve our response.
Secondly, the portrayal of the disease must shift from its panic-inducing status to normalising it, without trivialising it. For a disease in which 80% of cases are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, the dominant public account cannot be one of despair. The last three months have shown us that even these 80% patients face much more than just the disease: societal ostracisation and stigmatisation have been common.
Instead of merely reporting statistics, we must narrate the stories behind the numbers, of the courage and optimism with which most patients successfully fight Covid-19, and the overlooked many who help in their struggle.
A campaign chronicling such experiences will help fight the stigma and give the public reassurance. T shirts and masks declaring “I defeated Covid” and “I donated plasma” could certainly become a statement. After all, the disease cannot be defeated without eradicating the guilt and shame around it.
Caring for frontline workers
Thirdly, the morale of the frontline workers battling the disease must be considered. Healthcare workers and others have made unparalleled sacrifices in this battle. Suffocating PPE has been worn to make sure that the patients are able to breathe. They have stayed away from their families for months and even put their own lives at risk.
These frontline workers must be made to feel protected by offering family health insurance packages and by reserving beds for them in hospitals. In addition, they need to feel appreciated. The internet is filled with reports of healthcare workers in the UK who have experienced unexpected acts of gratitude, be it a simple round of applause or a cupcake offered by a stranger. In some places, hoardings have been erected to celebrate local heroes.
I must confess that I yearn for something similar to happen in India. Not an orchestrated thali banging, but genuine spontaneous small gestures of appreciation. The inflated hospital bills and the bed shortages must of course receive due coverage. But ignoring the majority who are toiling hard is counter-productive. Covid-19 is a unique and unprecedented disease, and missteps are bound to occur as we learn how to deal with it using our depleted, scared workforce. No battle can be won by repeatedly berating the soldiers.
Finally, we do need to recognise our Jude Laws and make them larger-than-life heroes. The young whistleblower ophthalmologist Li Wenliang who lost his life to Covid-19 became a moving symbol across China. Anthony Fauci’s word remains trusted across America. In the United Kingdom, the entire National Health Service has become a symbolic hero.
There is no dearth of equivalent examples in India across all walks of life, from healthcare workers to sanitation staff, crematorium workers, NGOs workers, and even bureaucrats and politicians who are doing more than their bit. We must hear their inspiring stories, about their triumphs and even failures, feel both their pressures and their elation.
We are witnessing one of the most significant chapters in modern history. It is up to us to ensure that the overall narrative is less about another pandemic tainted by stigma, loss, and death as had happened in HIV/AIDS, but more about a cohesive community response driven by rationality, compassion, determination and inspiration.
Dr Akshay Baheti is assistant Professor in Radiology at a hospital in Mumbai. Views are personal.