Watch Nidhi Razdan: Lessons from the media circus around Kate Middleton’s health crisis Video Credit: Gulf News

When the Princess of Wales broke the news of her cancer diagnosis to the world on March 22, there was shock, sympathy and also plenty of anger at the rather distasteful circus of rumours that had plagued the British Royal family for weeks before that.

Sections of the media and across social media in particular, conspiracy theories swirled and spread. Was she dead? Was she divorcing William? Was something even more sinister happening?

The video statement finally put an end to the absurd theories as the Princess of Wales bravely talked about receiving preventative chemotherapy and also appealed for privacy and space as she and her family deal with her treatment. The question is — will the media now leave her alone? Social media is a different kind of monster where some conspiracy theories still reign.

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We must stop speculating

The story also leads us to reflect on a much larger debate: are public figures entitled to privacy about their health? The answer is yes but its also complicated because in this social media driven world, public figures often don’t have the luxury of keeping things totally private.

In Princess Catherine’s case, I believe the palace could have handled things much better by being more open about her health right at the beginning without necessarily revealing all the details. By being so mysterious about everything, the rumour mills went out of control. Today the Princess faces an outpouring of support from all over the world and I suspect people will largely leave her alone.

Cancer is a dreaded disease and how one chooses to process a diagnosis or share it with others is entirely one’s own choice. It is difficult not just for the person who receives the news but for their families.

Thanks to huge advances in medicine, not every cancer diagnosis is a death sentence and millions do recover and live well. But it is still news one would never want. Which is why Princess Catherine now needs to be left to recover on her own time. We need to stop speculating on her condition and let her be.

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Public has a right to know

The issue of public figures and their health however acquires a different dimension when we look at constitutional figures or those in power. In the United States, the health of the President is an important issue and details of the Commander in Chief’s annual physical are made public.

People have a right to know if those that they elect to office are able to do their job properly. The health of the 81 year old President Biden has also become a major election issue. In late February, President Biden’s doctor conducted his physical exam and gave a statement saying said he “continues to be fit for duty,” while giving details of his sleep apnea device and some hip discomfort.

We also know Biden works out five times a week. Some may ask — do we really need to know all these details? I believe those who run for office or hold office cannot claim complete privacy and should be more transparent about their health. The public has a right to know.

In India, we had a similar debate around the health of the then Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi. However, while she was heading the ruling party at the time, she did not hold office. The right to know in her case therefore was far more limited.

I do believe it helps when celebrities speak up about their health issues because people become more aware about a disease, about getting regular check ups, like with breast cancer where early screening and self exams have become life savers. It also helps in removing stigmas surrounding many illnesses.

Public figures don’t have to share these details with us but I do think it helps. Ultimately, the decision lies with them.