Zee’s Covid-19 cases: Office WhatsApp group shows negligence towards social distancing, employee safety

Zee actually had its first coronavirus case on April 29. At the time, no one else was tested or quarantined.

WrittenBy:Atul Chaurasia& Basant Kumar
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On May 19, Newslaundry published a detailed report (read the English translation here) on how Zee News became a coronavirus hotspot. Twenty-eight employees of the Noida-based channel tested positive for Covid-19 on May 18.

Our report revealed the management’s lax attitude towards safety protocols and guidelines prescribed by the government to prevent the virus from spreading. Zee News’ offices were running at full capacity without social distancing or the option to work from home. Personnel who disobeyed were threatened with consequences.

Newslaundry has evidence which proves that no safety protocols were followed at Zee Media. Multiple messages show how employees were worried and complaining about their safety in office cabs or carpools to work. Newslaundry also accessed a document which proves that the first positive case of Covid-19 at Zee was in April — but the management successfully suppressed this information, to the extent of misleading others.

These actions turned Zee News into a coronavirus hotspot. The channel’s editor-in-chief, Sudhir Chaudhary, who calls his employees “corona warriors”, stands accused of not following the same guidelines that he preaches to the general public every night.

The cab conundrum

There is no vaccine to prevent Covid-19, which makes social distancing and proper hygiene vital to prevent the virus from spreading. There were several lapses in both these measures at Zee Media.

Since the lockdown began in March, the prescribed rule was that no more than two persons, excluding the driver, should travel in a car or cab. However, Zee Media endangered its employees by continuously not following this rule to the letter.

A single cab, arranged for the pick-up and drop-off of employees, would contain four people, not including the driver. Many employees expressed their concerns about this in an official WhatsApp group.

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The human resources team responded by telling the employees that they were trying to follow social distancing in cabs, but the sudden change in the roster had increased the number of personnel. But it was a temporary problem, they added, and the team would be asked to strictly follow safety norms henceforth.

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The Zee News building in Noida also houses Zee Hindustan and other regional channels. The management planned several routes to ferry employees to and from work. Employees from all the channels are picked up simultaneously on a single route, irrespective of the channel for whom they work. Complaints from employees from different routes prove that this problem wasn’t specific to a single route or cab.

The police also often stopped Zee Media’s cabs for not following social distancing norms. However, the management reportedly handled these situations using influence or connections, and the practice continued.

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The HR team’s responses to most complaints were largely evasive but one of them was especially bewildering. It said: “Tring to minimize the strength in cabs but due to last-minute request and shortage of vehicles some time we managed with 3+1 or 4+1 in SUV cabs. Would request team to use personal vehicles if any (sic).”

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Another response from the HR team confirms suspicions of the management’s callous attitudes towards the safety of their employees.

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Summarily, the employees were told that anyone who owns a car should use their own vehicle to come to work, or carpool with other employees, since the company wasn’t able to maintain social distancing in cabs. The management “urged” employees to be “supportive” since it was “facing more requests for transportation than we can handle”.

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Remember, this was said when public transport was suspended due to the lockdown even as the company made it mandatory for all employees to come to work. Zee’s actions of ferrying up to five people in a single cab fly in the face of the home ministry’s guidelines. A Zee employee told Newslaundry: “This is how cabs functioned in our company till May 17.”

The office lift and the cafeteria

When 28 employees of Zee News tested positive for coronavirus, the fourth floor of Zee Media’s offices in Film City was sealed. The remaining floors are still operational. Employees who work on these floors raised another concern in the same official WhatsApp group.

All the personnel in the building use the same lifts, or elevators, to reach their offices on different floors. The employees who were found to be positive did the same, along with everyone else. The building cafeteria is common for all employees, and the same cafeteria workers go to each floor in the building.

A Zee Media employee told Newslaundry: “The whole building should have been sealed, but we’ve been left, just like that. The people from Zee News have moved to the WION (another Zee Media channel) building.”

Amidst the many issues presented in the office WhatsApp group, an employee made a strange complaint regarding the lift. The group, which is now archived, included members from the HR and Facilities teams.

To prevent people from touching the buttons in the lift, toothpicks were placed inside for the employees to use instead. An employee wrote in the group: “It’s important to know and inform. When the toothpicks placed outside the lift run out, the toothpicks which have been used inside the lift are taken to be used outside. Everyone, please break the toothpick after using it.”

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Another employee said: “This is a serious crime, a crime such as spreading corona intentionally.”

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The HR team responded to this message, saying that used toothpicks are disposed of.

So, despite Chaudhary now calling the employees “corona warriors”, why weren’t measures taken at the office for their safety? When information was first made public of Zee Media’s first coronavirus case on May 15, Chaudhary tried to connect it to “patriotism”. At the same time, he ordered the staff to come to the office every day, notwithstanding the coronavirus case. And he did the same thing on May 18.

Zee’s first positive case

Newslaundry’s previous report described Ashish (name changed) as patient zero in the Zee coronavirus case. As it turns out, Ashish wasn’t actually the first case.

Newslaundry unearthed new evidence which shows that the first instance of a Zee Media employee testing positive for Covid-19 took place on April 29. The employee is a cameraman named Suresh Chauhan (name changed).

Murmurs began at the company once the news spread, since Suresh had been regularly attending office and meeting people till about three or four days before he tested positive. Along with Suresh, a cab driver for Zee Media also tested positive.

Employees raised concerns and sought clarifications in the official WhatsApp group.

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HR responded by saying that the infected cameraman used to “stay in the field” and not visit the office. This was contradicted by many employees, but the management evaded the question.

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No one else was tested or quarantined.

When Ashish tested positive on May 15, Sudhir Chaudhary called him a “whistleblower” of Zee News. He claimed that when Ashish found he was showing symptoms, he stopped coming to work. We told him not to come to work, Chaudhary said. He went home and got himself tested, he added, and the test came back positive on May 15.

Ashish might actually be a flagbearer for Zee, not a whistleblower. Ashish got himself tested and let everyone know of the results. Otherwise, who knows how long the company might have kept it under wraps, endangering all the other employees?

Noida administration

As explained earlier, the fourth floor of the Zee Media building has been sealed but it’s business as usual at the rest of the floo. Is this even legal? What does the coronavirus hotspot rulebook, as put forth by the Noida administration and the Uttar Pradesh government, say about it?

A class one officer of the Noida administration spoke to Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity.

He said: “There’s mono and then there’s a cluster. If there’s one positive case in a building, we seal the 200-metre radius for 20 days. We call that a mono. A few essential activities are allowed in this protocol.”

He continued, “If there are a bulk of positive cases of Covid-19 at a place, that is declared a cluster. In a cluster, the 500-metre radius of that area is completely sealed off and no activities are allowed within that range. No one is allowed to leave or visit that area, and only the medical team is permitted to visit it.”

The Zee Media building is in Noida’s Film City. Film City itself covers an area of about two km. If these protocols were enacted, operations of many other companies and channels would come to a halt. However, the Zee building itself isn’t sealed, let alone a 500-metre radius around it.

Most officials from the Noida administration were hesitant to discuss the matter. Newslaundry asked Umashankar Singh, the city magistrate of Noida, about declaring the Zee News offices as a coronavirus cluster. Singh directed us to Noida’s chief medical officer for clarification. All attempts to contact the chief medical officer were unsuccessful.

Newslaundry contacted Nitin Tiwari, DCP Noida (head office). Tiwari said: “The police act upon the instructions given to them. The decision to seal any area or not is taken by the administration and the doctors. We send our force to any place after the orders to seal it are issued. We have no role besides that in the process.”

Newslaundry tried to speak to Noida’s district magistrate, Suhas LY, several times. His assistant said he was busy. We sent him a questionnaire but received no response.

Newslaundry sent a list of questions, by email and WhatsApp, to Sudhir Chaudhary and Zee Media’s HR representative about the concerns raised by the company’s employees.

Note: All the screenshots used in this report are from Zee Hindustan’s official WhatsApp group. It is to be noted that employees of all the channels under Zee Media travel together in official cabs and use the same lifts in the building.

This piece was originally published in Hindi. It was translated to English by Shardool Katyayan.


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