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Exotic, Rare and Defying all Norms... so where's the Media?

International and particularly western media outlets have failed to cover the story of extremely low malaria rates in the poor south Indian state of Kerala.We know that Kerala has been ruled since independence by left-leaning governments which have developed locally-based malaria response and prevention efforts. We know that the government’s commitment to strictly locally-sourced medical care has afforded Kerala an extraordinary health care system with a well-integrated anti-malaria campaign. We know that malaria was temporarily eradicated in Kerala and when it resurged throughout India in the late 1960s rates remained lower in Kerala than in any other Indian states. We know that the state is now employing its wide-reaching and well-developed health provision system to keep malaria at bay, isolating it to a few regions and working to reduce transmission rates within those areas. From these statements we know that elements of Kerala’s unique health care system can be used as models in efforts to improve the health of people in other parts of the developing world. With such a highly valuable source of information and experience available to development scholars and experts worldwide, in this blog I beg the question: why have the media- the transmitters of information and knowledge, the definers of what people view as important and know is possible- neither paid nor brought much attention to the successes of Kerala’s health care system? Before I can address the above question, I feel it is important that I summarize the main themes I drew from the few news articles I did find in my online search for “malaria” +  “Kerala” or “developing nations”.

Modern mainstream Indian and Keralan media cover some resurgence of malaria cases in Kerala state over the last few years but for the most part do not point any fingers at governmental or medical officials. Instead most media sources relate increased malaria rates to environmental factors, the complex nature of the virus, or the movement of goods and people between states. Local news articles on the topic remain neutral, stating that resurgences are causing concern for health authorities but that they are taking matters into their own hands and working to mitigate the presence of malaria. One article for a Keralan news organization defies the rest, claiming that the media only cover new diseases even when older ones like malaria return in outbreaks each year. “The health care system is deteriorating,” the author claims, “and is no longer a model for other states.” It seems that when malaria was a newer disease media coverage of the disease and progress or regression in the fight against it was more frequent and significant. In more recent years when malaria has been largely kept at bay and shows itself only in low numbers during certain times of the rainy season or in migrant laborers, it has lost its place in much of the local media coverage, as there are more pressing current issues to cover.

Whereas a lack of media coverage of malaria-response efforts is logical on a local level as it has become a norm of the state, there should be or have been more international and particularly western media coverage of the extremely low malaria rates in the poor south Indian state of Kerala. This topic- a tropical, “exotic” state South India defying the generally-held idea that people can only attain health and standard-of-living levels similar to those held by Americans after they’ve developed industrially and economically like the U.S., certainly is unexpected, exciting news. To report on the story of Kerala’s impressive ability to drastically decrease malaria rates, one of the most common killers of low-income, tropical populations, would suit the journalistic ideals of being investigative, working in the interest of the public, and making information accessible. It seems that despite the opportunities for producing good journalism that the “story” of Kerala’s health care provided, very few American journalists or the news outlets they work for think the story is worth covering.

American mainstream media sources have largely failed to cover my story altogether, either lumping all of India together and thereby hiding the extraordinary success Kerala has had in the fight against the spread of malaria, or covering malaria-stricken states across the developing world as if they are a single entity, all at the same place in terms of eradication efforts and all in the same needy position. The meager coverage that is provided by U.S. media sources portray malaria response efforts as up to the U.S. and other Western donors, rarely even entertaining the idea that antimalarial campaigns can come from the nations experiencing the disease firsthand. The most frequent result pertaining to malaria within mainstream U.S. news databases now has to do with the latest vaccine being tested in Sub-Saharan Africa by British pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline. Between the media’s praise of western medical research on African babies and its calls for more Americans to donate money for international aid efforts it is clear that U.S. mainstream media players are working to reproduce and lend legitimacy to the notion that the West knows best when it comes to combating malaria.

The little news coverage I was able to find of malaria response perpetuates North-South divides and the idea that developing nations are inherently dependent on Western governments and aid organization for medical care and general development. My analysis does not end with the above lofty conclusion simply because there is little media coverage of my topic but continues on at this time to examine what is not provided by the media. An analysis in my next blog of why there is very little news of Kerala’s largely effective and progressive anti-malaria efforts to be found in modern news sources is most useful to my underreported story because it sheds light on the economic system in place in Kerala, which I maintain is the leading determiner of the state’s ability to effectively meet citizen’s health care needs.