THE STORY of the 21st century

An interview with Nneka Parsanlal and Joshua Seemungal, frontline journalists covering COVID-19 developments in Trinidad and Tobago



For any journalist around the world, it does not get bigger than this. Covering COVID-19 will consume your entire being and exhaust your senses (if you allow it to). But as Winston Churchill once said,


“Never waste a good crisis."

This is it. You either drown in the vast ocean of information overload, or you swim sensibly against the currents and make it ashore. You'll be spent, but more in tune with the sea's movement.


As a Corporate Communications professional, I have to constantly filter information before posting on social media channels. With an overly anxious population that seldom panders to fake news, one has to be vigilant about what to divulge and how much of it. People are emotionally volatile. They will over-analyse your words and even run away with careless conclusions. Now slap on the responsibilities of covering daily press conferences with key Government Ministers, the Chief Medical Officer and the Prime Minister. Writing articles for immediate dissemination. Tweeting snippets of information every 15 minutes.


You now have a journalist.


And these are just the tangible things we see.


Journalists must live, breathe and consume information 24 hours a day. This is a health crisis new to the world, and every passing minute brings new insights. They must scan 1.3 million minds daily, pluck our biggest concerns, and ask all the right questions in a tense, 90-minute virtual conference. They must also keep up with the ever-evolving international developments. Journalists play a critical part in managing our country's response to COVID-19. They must condense this humanitarian crisis into digestible bits for the population, cognizant of our varying degrees of literacy. It's like feeding a toddler solid foods for the first time. Too much too quickly, and they'll choke.


They are scared too. They are emotional beings, too. But they fiercely guard their pledge to remain objective, balanced, and sharp, especially during a General Election year in Trinidad and Tobago.


Nneka Parsanlal and Joshua Seemungal are two journalists on the frontline. They chase after every COVID-19 development, and with the fluid nature of this pandemic, deadlines are extremely tight. There is little room for error or exhaustion. Nevertheless, they both promptly responded to my questions; a testament to their journalistic standards.


The new routine


With a 10am press conference almost daily, there's much preparation to be done. Nneka is up at odd hours, getting a sense of what the day will entail and trying to compartmentalize her own anxieties. "What we do daily is not redundant. The situation is fluid and we must adapt swiftly." Joshua also reviews the specific issues affecting T&T at that given point in time. He reads stories from all major media houses, and starts formulating his questions, accounting for the concerns expressed through conversations with the public.


It's 9:30 am, and the soundcheck begins for all journalists. The key players make their way to the head table. And then it all starts.


The Chief Medical Officer, Minister of Health, Minister of Communications, Minister of National Security, and depending on the nature of the day's briefing, the Prime Minister, all announce the latest COVID-19 developments. No new cases. Announcing a new death. Change in public health regulations. Reduced hours for businesses. Number of ventilators available in the country. Beds to accommodate patients. Reopening the borders. Stranded citizens dotted across the world clamouring to come back home.


It's mentally taxing. No one was ever formally trained for a crisis of biblical proportions. Not even the media.


Then the questions ensue. It's time for these journalists to kick into gear. They have listened and digested the information, perhaps clicked on international news articles during the conference to assess our own performance as a nation, and yes, tweeted the salient points. They have so much to ask as the clock ticks and patience draws thin. Everyone has to rinse and repeat this routine and the fatigue often shows.


The conference ends, and Nneka and Joshua are off to produce multiple stories on the day's COVID-19 update. But that's not the end of their job. There are two daily updates issued separately by the Ministry of Health summarizing the critical stats. There are the human interest stories that need to be told- the farmers and their unsold crops, impoverished persons slipping into deeper despair, and the recent flooding in Trinidad. Nneka stressed that this was a major cause for concern as floodwaters are natural carriers of diseases.


And of course, there's Crime. The work never stops.


Their biggest challenge


Mental burnout is undeniably the biggest hurdle that Nneka and Joshua must guard against.

As Joshua shares, "I have to tell stories of immense suffering. It's a challenge to not feel the pain of some of these people... This is a worrying time for most, but our job involves putting our own concerns aside - whether it would be the worry of contracting the disease or the health of our loved ones, in order to put the public's interest first."Nneka also confesses that anxiety continues to permeate the profession. Like Joshua, she also accepts that her job involves potentially coming into contact with suspected COVID-19 cases, sharing that was already tested out of an abundance of caution. Nneka also personally knows one of the COVID-positive patients but has had to maintain her composure whilst coping with this reality.


The positives


Let's not drown in the misery of COVID-19. There are positives to this crisis.


Nneka says that the pandemic is catapulting us into a different mode of thinking. "It provides an opportunity for us to transform our work and commute routines to alleviate traffic congestion and stress levels among the population." She is also impressed by the adaptations made by businesses to stay afloat, namely through the introduction of food delivery services and restaurant curbside pickups (at least when restaurants were opened).


Nneka shares an optimistic view- all is not lost. She believes that Trinidad and Tobago needs to continue to be patient as we confront COVID-19. "We are a young nation dealing with a new issue. We cannot compare what is happening here to any other country. We are all learning."


Joshua has made it clear that he does not intend to give up. "This is the story of every journalist's career...I think of ways to tell stories about COVID-19 in essentially every waking minute. I will do so until I'm on the verge of burn out." Even if or when he gets to that point, Joshua will turn to his support system- music, talking to loved ones, and his faith in God.


Both Joshua and Nneka underscore their commitment to being watchdogs of democracy. They, along with the entire media fraternity will continue to work tirelessly so that we the citizens, can stay well-informed and perhaps sane.


Kudos to all journalists on the frontline every day. You are symbols of resilience.



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© 2020 by Amrita Maharaj-Dube