News media give space to voices of essential, frontline workers and people in quarantine

Following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on the daily routines of people around the world, some Latin American media are dedicating spaces for the voices of those who want to share their stories, particularly those from the front lines.

“I have never seen a jam of corpses", says a gravedigger to Dhiego Maia de Folha de S. Paulo for Essential workers against the coronavirus. (Screenshot.)

In early April, Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo decided to use the platform that its interactive content team created to tell how immigrants lived in São Paulo, this time to share the stories of essential workers without whom the people who are quarantined could not survive.

“The ‘Trabajadores esenciales contra el coronavirus’ (Essential workers against the coronavirus) project was first published on April 3 with the profiles of four professionals: a pharmacist, a police officer, an app driver and a street sweeper,” Dhiego Maia, reporter from Folha de S. Paulo, told the Knight Center.

The series was the brainchild of the newspaper's diversity editor, Alexandra Morais, whose department was created in 2019 to reflect the diversity of the country's social and daily life in the newsroom. According to Maia, from the beginning, the intention of the series was to reproduce the interviewee's story, "in full and in a logical sequence," regarding their daily life during the pandemic.

“We also did not start the project with doctors and nurses, professionals naturally already highlighted in this war for life. The idea was to shed light on the forgotten functions, but just as important for the health of the metropolis, like the person who collects our garbage,” he added.

Maia has the arduous task of looking for the stories of those who alleviate, in some way, the suffering of the majority. According to Maia, telling these stories from the place where they take place greatly enriches the story. Along with photographer Karime Xavier, and with all the security and distance protocols, Maia interviews the characters that he contacts or that he is referred to by public and private institutions.

The format of the stories, Maia said, is visually related to the format of social networks to hook the reader. The stories of the interviewees, which are published more or less every other day, are presented with ten photographs that are accompanied by ten sentences of 230 characters each.

“This size of the text is essential to not impair the viewing of content on the mobile,” Maia said. “We are one of the nations that most consume social networks on the planet, so, when our reader opens the platform, especially on the cell phone and is faced with a template very similar to that of social networks, he clicks and reads everything.”

“Essential workers against coronavirus” will have a special chapter in the series showing the work behind the camera of the interviews and their characters. “This selection will feature the most impactful stories, the risks that Karime and I face and the feeling of walking in another São Paulo --empty and sad.”

Ojo Público and the quarantine diaries

Journalists at Ojo Público, a Peruvian investigative journalism site, began to think of a space to give the ordinary citizen a voice shortly after the isolation measures began to mitigate the spread of the virus, Nelly Luna, co-founder and general editor from Ojo Público, told the Knight Center.

Diario de la cuarentena: las historias de todos” (Quarantine Diary: Everyone's Stories) was released on April 12. “The objective was to open a meeting space for different voices, from their daily lives, their fears and hopes. These voices were not represented in the media, so two weeks after the start of the quarantine we prepared the project together with the audience editor, Carlos Bracamonte, who was the most enthusiastic promoter of this process," Luna said.

“Quarantine Diary: Everyone's Stories”, from Ojo Público. (Screenshot.)

In this space, according to Luna, the stories are published every day and in the first person from "parents who have been unemployed due to the crises, older adults who now live alone and must manage to eat, or simply stay active.” Also, she added, are the stories of “small merchants who are watching the business they built over the years die, people with anxiety who have had to suspend their therapies or families who also see quarantine as an opportunity to be together, or women who now work three jobs: telecommuting, virtual school classes and also cooking or doing other household chores.”

In the email account created for the project, Luna said, they receive dozens of testimonies, some short, others extensive, sometimes they even receive the complete diaries that some people started when the quarantine began. "One can notice the need to talk about the issue, about the isolation, and how it is affecting us all," she said.

“It is not you telling them which topics are most relevant, it is them now telling you what matters most to them. It is a wonderful gesture of trust," Luna said. “That excites me a lot, the first day the emails began to arrive, I read them all night and cried, I felt that we should do more. A mixture of helplessness and at the same time, uncertainty about what to answer them. Uncertainty is the giant shadow under which we have to work and live together these days."

The stories received are read and answered by the audience editor, who is responsible for verifying data and the identity of the sender. Some people who work in public entities ask not to put their last names for fear of retaliation, Luna said. Then they select them, edit them respecting the authors' orality, and the team's graphic artist, Claudia Calderón, proposes and creates an illustration for each one. "Every email that arrives questions us and forces us to think about the need to reaffirm journalism's commitment and social contract with the public service," Luna said.

“As reporters, one is used to many situations of stress, long hours of work and emotional burden, but opening this diary opens up a different situation for us, it is as if you were sharing the isolation simultaneously with each one of them. ... The responsibility is tripled," she said.

On the front line of Salud con Lupa

For Salud con Lupa, a Peruvian journalistic site specializing in health issues, the publication of the testimonies arose out of the need of the protagonists themselves, doctors, nurses and hospital and health center workers who are on the front line of fighting the coronavirus.

“On the front line” from Salud con Lupa. (Screenshot.)

“Salud con Lupa began to receive emails and messages to their social media accounts from healthcare workers and cleaning personnel who were reporting very serious situations and also asked for help. In many cases, people preferred anonymity because in mid-April - when they themselves began to filter images and testimonies on videos on social networks - EsSalud, the Minsa (Ministry of Health) and other health institutions prohibited them from speaking to the media under threat of sanctions or dismissals,” Fabiola Torres, founder and director of the site, told the Knight Center.

The documentation of the frontline stories they receive has three objectives: to give them space to share their experiences in the first person, collect their complaints and in turn write long-format narrative stories or informative stories that offer solutions to those problems, and document the stories of extraordinary and exemplary struggles taking place in the health centers and that little is known about.

To edit their stories, Torres said they have the help of an independent doctor, Daniel Rojas, who interviews the health personnel who comes to them to share their stories. He helps the team edit the testimonies by verifying that the information and data is correct before publication.

“Listening or reading the voices of those who are on the front lines allows us to talk about the life stories, about what we are going through to understand the dimension of the pandemic. No figure or statistic tells a story. The statistics that the authorities report to us daily do not say anything if we do not understand the stories," Torres said.

There are some testimonies that are very tough and others that give more hope, Torres said, citing the story of the nurse who "regained her spirits when her ICU patient raised her hand to greet her after days of being bedridden."

In the future, the Salud con Lupa series would be a book that contains an anthology of all the testimonies published, as a "way of documenting a historical moment that we should not forget, but rather to learn from those lessons to avoid repeating mistakes," Torres said.

The short-term plans are for this space to become a collaborative project that includes testimonies from frontline staff from 10 other Latin American countries, as part of a regional coverage effort led by Salud con Lupa, Torres said.