By Cristi Hegranes and Laxmi Parthasarathy
In late January, the government of Mongolia imposed a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus. Although it was a farsighted move by public officials, its sudden execution took us by surprise. Two reporters from Global Press, the international news organization we lead, had gone off grid to remote sites in the countryside. Our team mined a network of local contacts and tracked down our reporters. We breathed a sigh of relief: we knew our reporters were safe. And they knew we cared.
As this pandemic worsens, it threatens our most valuable assets—our people. Global Press operates over forty news bureaus, with more than a hundred staff dispersed around the world. Over the past fourteen years we’ve weathered innumerable disruptions—including multiple Ebola outbreaks—and learned a critical lesson. For our reporters to feel secure and remain productive through harrowing times, they need to know that we care deeply about their physical security and mental wellbeing and are receptive to their local contexts and needs.
This lesson sounds obvious, but its execution is anything but. Media organizations with bureaus around the world have trained for moments of crisis when they may need to evacuate reporters from danger. But this situation is different: fleeing the coronavirus isn’t an option, because it’s everywhere. As global teams hunker down for long and lonely shutdowns, the media needs a playbook to provide sustained support for reporters where they are.
Our playbook has been shaped by a crucible of crises. All of our reporters live full-time in the communities they report on. On any given day, they might face violent clashes among armed groups that endanger them and their families (Mexico), runaway inflation that impoverishes them overnight (Zimbabwe), or a blanket internet shutdown and curfew cutting them off from the outside world (Indian-Administered Kashmir). Supporting our reporters through these disruptions requires us to trust their judgment, and for them to trust that we’ve got their backs.
Constant, two-way communication is at the heart of this relationship. Given the range of risks our reporters face, we obsess over transmitting the most minute details when they travel on assignment: a photo of the taxi driver’s license, how much additional fuel is in the trunk, the location of a backup guest house en route. So when the coronavirus lockdown stranded our Mongolian reporters, we already had their detailed travel itineraries and contingency plans to make contact through intermediaries.
A global pandemic of this scale has strained our procedures to respond to local disruptions. Early in the coronavirus crisis, reporters from one of our bureaus informed us that their government had announced a lockdown overnight. That was a missed opportunity. Had our headquarters team proactively reached out to our reporters right after the government’s announcement, we could have reassured them that we’re constantly monitoring their situation.
Since then, we’ve heightened our global research team’s efforts to track a range of government websites and social media handles daily, as well as mine our local networks of contacts near every bureau we operate around the world. We want every reporter to know we’re looking out for her. For example, on March 20, Sri Lanka issued a vaguely worded curfew directive and didn’t bother to translate it into Tamil, the language of the northern region. Panic and confusion reigned in Tamil-speaking Jaffna, where we have several reporters. Within hours, our regional team stitched together information from government websites and sent our reporters a translated primer.
In other jurisdictions, our reporters are our eyes and ears for the most up-to-date coronavirus developments. In Zimbabwe, for example, our reporters anticipated an imminent shutdown, so we wired them funds ahead of schedule. We trusted their judgment that the border would close with South Africa, cutting them off from certain essential goods they can’t buy at home. Having the money in advance allowed them to buy the needed supplies before South Africa eventually closed the border.
We don’t stay in constant touch with our reporters only to monitor their physical safety—we also do it to bolster their emotional security. Surrounded by fear in their local communities and staring down an extended period of social isolation, our team needs to know that Global Press is always thinking about their wellbeing. Although it’s too early to quantify the psychological toll of the coronavirus, a study of measures to combat the SARS outbreak revealed that over 30 percent of quarantined individuals developed depression.
We’ve learned firsthand the importance of caring for our team’s mental health, especially in times of crisis. Just in the last year, the traumatic episodes our reporters have faced span the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, riots in Haiti, earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and overnight devaluation of bank balances in Zimbabwe. To help them cope, we’ve invested in a network of wellness counselors around the world, who can converse in our reporters’ local languages. They’re in high demand: in 2019, half of our reporters took advantage of counseling sessions.
Because our reporters hail from such diverse backgrounds, part and parcel of caring for their physical and mental wellbeing is respecting local needs. We learned the importance of tailoring our responses to local contexts from previous epidemics of the Ebola virus that erupted over the last decade around our bureaus in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To ensure our reporters fully bought into our safety protocols, we needed to first understand the constraints they faced. Little details mattered. For example, rather than mandate that all reporters find themselves a standard, foreign-made first aid kit, we recognized that some equipment might be difficult to source locally. So we helped our team members assemble their own medically functional kits, fully stocked with locally sourced materials.
In addition, we learned to evaluate risks in the broader local context, rather than in isolation. In 2019, an outbreak of measles killed more Congolese than did Ebola. This year, in many tropical parts of the world where we operate, mosquito-borne dengue may well claim more fatalities than the novel coronavirus. Therefore, as we disseminate guidance to our global team on staying safe from the coronavirus, it’s important that we also help them prepare for other threats that are equally or more pressing. If we issue elaborate coronavirus safety protocols and downplay risks that a local reporter knows are acute in her context, she’ll feel—rightly—that we haven’t carefully thought through her personal context.
Ultimately, we can’t be sure that we’re completely prepared for the coronavirus crisis—no organization should be overly confident amid such a volatile global crisis. But we’re determined to weather it together with our team, and we want them to know their wellbeing is our top priority. We hope our approach might help other media organizations confront this crisis, and build resilience to future disruptions as well.
Cristi Hegranes and Laxmi Parthasarathy are CEO and COO, respectively, of Global Press, an international news organization that trains and employs local, female journalists to report on the communities they serve with dignity and precision. This year, Global Press is the recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s “Chester M. Pierce Human Rights” award for its efforts to serve the mental health needs of its worldwide staff, especially in communities without robust mental health resources.