Journalists are dealing with an unprecedented level of difficulties since the Covid-19 outbreak. The spread of this pandemic has had a deep impact on everyone in the field — whether they are covering it or not. After talking to a few female journalists, it was clear that they definitely have it worse.
While developing Covid-19 resources for The Coalition For Women In Journalism, I spoke to several female journalists in Pakistan about how they are covering the pandemic and found that they are now confronted with a whole new set of problems in addition to the issues they have always faced.
Fly to work?
Mobility has always been a limiting factor when it comes to how far female journalists can go in the industry. Karachi-based Ambreen* says she has faced transport issues, even before the Covid-19 threat.
"My organisation doesn’t provide transport to everyone. I don’t own a car so I’ve been dependent on Uber and Careem or Airlift — all of which have suspended operations because of the pandemic. How am I supposed to keep going to work?” she asks.
With the pandemic wreaking havoc, both the Sindh and Punjab governments have imposed restrictions on public and private transport — so even if one were to have a car, it may not be of much use to many.
"We have no press cards, so how are we to go around during a lockdown?" asks Aliya* a journalist based in Lahore, noting that even the most basic of resources are not made available by newsrooms in general.
Competition for Covid-19
Several Pakistani newsrooms are notorious for being — without sugar-coating it — filthy. Some I’ve personally worked in are breeding grounds for many ailments, with the current coronavirus a new entrant into an old cesspool.
And while some newsrooms are doing a better job of giving their workers protective gear and ensuring physical safety, there are others that fall short by mountains. "On a good day, there are rats running around in my office. What possible sanitisation can they ensure when they have never been able to get rid of rats? I’ve had a UTI thrice working here," says Urooj*, a Lahore-based journalist said.
There is also a lack of balance in terms of facilities available to female staffers. What seem like simple, small things are making a huge difference in current times. For instance, Ambreen's workplace has only one toilet for 10 or more women. "To be honest, our office is generally disgustingly unclean — this is not just a pandemic issue," she says.
Pandemic? What pandemic?
For some female journalists simply getting permission to work from home has been an uphill struggle. Editors and managers aren’t ready to take the disease seriously. Aliya says her editor has refused to take the pandemic seriously and keeps asking the staff to "wait till things get worse".
"Our entire team had to aggressively push for the work from home option before we were told we could do it. Even then, we had to be at work during production days. Then the Punjab government announced the lockdown and some of us insisted that coming to work at all would endanger our families. Even in such times, unless you push and push and agitate there is no initiative on part of the management to take concerns, especially health-related ones, seriously," she says.
Where editors and superiors are empathetic, the organisation’s human resource department may not feel the same way. "In my case, even though my boss was understanding about my need to work from home, the organisation was not," Ambreen says, noting that even though some have been allowed to work remotely, there are staffers who are still required to go into work.
"I wasn’t allowed to work from home until I developed symptoms. It wasn't Covid-19 but it did the job. There were no precautions in place for safety even until that point," Ambreen says, adding that it took a false alarm to jolt her newsroom into some action.
The apathy being shown by those running the newsrooms is going to end up contributing to the spread of this disease. "My husband is a page marker in another organisation — even though I am at home, he's still out there for work. How do I stay safe?" Ambreen asks.
There is also the looming fear of what happens when the lockdown ends and everyone returns to work. "Are these spaces now cleaner than they were before? Is the virus still there? I have a lot of anxiety about it all," says Urooj.
"We’ve been given no gear for the virus. None at all. And there has been no training on how to stay safe. Whatever we’re doing is our own effort," she adds.
Even offering a plan that would have helped maintain efficiency while working from home was ignored in some cases. Solutions and technical options were ignored, and female journalists were made to feel as though they wanted to "slack off".
"We as a team are experimenting and helping one another figure things out. The management, I understand, has never faced such a situation, but a sufficient enough time has now passed for them to formulate proper strategies," says Aliya.
Urooj said she’s finding it hard to deal with the stress of the situation. "I am putting on a brave face but I haven’t slept properly since the first case was diagnosed in Lahore. Even though we’re journalists, social media is taking a toll on us.
"I’m one the verge of resigning. If they can’t give us any safety then I just don’t want to work," she says.
"We were already operating with limited resources and with the surge in cases it’s made getting stories even more difficult precisely because it could potentially put the reporter at risk. It is emotionally taking an altogether different toll on us. After we concluded a special report recently, I couldn’t sleep for two days because I was anxious about my reporters. I don’t know what they must have gone through — and this is while struggling to get our own newsroom to take the issue seriously," says Aliya.
Even journalists whose organisations have been helpful and supportive have not been able to escape the stress and anxiety caused by Covid-19. Ramsha, a Karachi-based journalist, says working from home had made some things easier. However, despite its benefits, it can be taxing.
"There are definitely more distractions at home. It’s hard to disconnect from one’s surroundings and family — and hard to disconnect from news when I’m not working — it’s overwhelming. It’s all new right now. I’m exploring and learning."
To manage stress, she’s started doing yoga at home. "But I haven’t been regular because of fatigue. I feel overworked even if I am putting in less hours," she adds.
Another issue is that for many female journalists, working from home means working on more than their jobs. They have to multitask between duties at home and their jobs.
Urooj says being at home has meant added pressure to be ever-present for housework while having to tackle with office work. "And we don’t really have a culture of working from home, so people find it hard to communicate when they’re occupied," she adds.
While some newsrooms are lagging behind, others are evolving with the pandemic to ensure that their people remain safe. Ramsha says Covid-19 has changed things in many ways. "I work for a newspaper and things have gone remote now all thanks to technology. People in the industry are not tech savvy so this has made them come out of their comfort zone and explore digital," she explains.
However, even if you have a supportive organisation, there are several other issues that the Covid-19 has thrown at journalists. She says that for anyone reporting, the biggest challenge is misinformation. "The current situation is a test even for fact checkers. There is a lot of false information out there and too many updates — it’s hard to keep up," she adds.
And journalists who are working for organisations that have already been beaten down have it much harder. "We have our backs against the walls in terms of resources. Fact-checking and communicating everything has been harder," she says.
Despite the many, many problems that they face in the industry, most women journalists do not want to quit.
"At least they are paying us… even if it’s with a two-month delay," Ambreen says and laughs. And unfortunately, that is the clincher, the industry's standards have fallen so low that journalists are now prepared to tackle a global pandemic on a personal level so long as they're paid.
**Names have been changed to protect identities of the persons.*