Where routines are challenged, health reporting abides

Nov 82009

Fuel shortages, power failures and Internet outages hinder, but don't halt health reporting here.Last night the lights went out, the sudden total onset of darkness followed by a resounding crash of thunder that went on, rumbling and clattering, shaking other bits of infrastructure for some minutes after.

Interpreting sounds in the darkness can lead to dire conclusions, and it seemed likely then that the power would stay out for some time, as it has in the past after routinely predictable events.

By now I know the drill, and knew that whether the power stayed off for hours, days or was destined to go on and off for weeks as it did in June, the flow of life and work here would scarcely be interrupted.

Multiple events here in the capital of Zambia, where difficult lives and a shaky infrastructure are challenged alike, daily, by random mishaps, have proven that. Those events have said something about priorities here.

I have proof of those priorities now, in the form of five full-open pages the Zambia Daily Mail produced, exploring causes for and answers to the Malaria epidemic here.

They were produced two weeks ago, when a shortage of fuel brought quarter mile-long lines to major streets leading to gas stations, on which motorists sat for several hour stretches and which effectively brought surrounding traffic to a halt. At the same time, for reasons that may or may not have been related the power went out in about half the offices at the Daily Mail.

There management had thrown itself behind the series of malaria stories, assigning daily commentaries to run with them and staff photos to run with the bylines, both requiring some last minute gathering.

All of this -- that is the last minute gathering and the concatenation of challenges (power out, fuel out, traffic frozen) came together midweek to turn what would have been a minute long task into a half-day odyssey. That happened when the writer of that day's commentary ended up stranded by the fuel shortage and without Internet access in the Copperbelt. Another writer took up the assignment. In the meantime sending copy to the Deputy Managing Editor was hindered by the power failure. The DME picked up the phone to get tech support to look at the situation, but his phone was out too. I headed home to sent the copy from there, where I hoped my Internet would be working, a normally five-minute journey that took 45 minutes that day in the gas-staion-line blocked traffic. And another 45 minutes back.

All of that was no matter -- the next day's stories and commentary appeared, as scheduled, as did the next day's and the final triumphant day's work.

I remembered the time five years ago when I completed my first series of stories about AIDS in Palm Beach County, set to run in mid-August. Then a series of hurricanes hit, and delaying publication of the stories for two-and-a-half months. It was the least of the problems to come from those hurricanes and in any case I had no argument with the postponement. No one would have read the stories anyway if they had appeared in the midst of such chaos and on many days the newspaper didn't make it to people's doorsteps. And for weeks after, coverage and conversation revolved around the shock of lost things.

But the fact that the malaria series did make it out on time here in the midst of obstacles that slowed the already challenged pace of work here said something about priorities. As anywhere they ultimately revolve around survival, resilience, and solutions. That week, as reporters and editors skipped over obstacles that could have brought their work to a stop, those priorities boded well for the promise of health journalism here.