‘Unfair and presumptuous’: Shillong Times forced to close after staffers contract coronavirus

Four employees of the daily have tested positive for the virus, leading to the government declaring its office a containment area.

WrittenBy:Ayan Sharma
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The Shillong Times, one of the oldest English dailies in Northeast India, was forced to shut temporarily on August 23 after four of its staffers had tested positive for coronavirus.

Alleging violation of coronavirus protocols, the East Khasi Hills district administration declared the newspaper’s office in Rilbong as a containment area. The paper’s management deemed the move “presumptuous”.

“After 75 years of service, we got the stick from the government for alleged violation of health protocol,” the newspaper informed its readers on Sunday. “This means that ST will not hit the stands from August 23 onwards.”

As for the government’s order, the daily insisted that “despite all the protocols being in place, an official order picked holes where there was none”.

Manas Chaudhuri, the newspaper’s owner and former editor, told Newslaundry that he came to know about the decision on the night of August 22. “At about 11.30 pm, I received the order on WhatsApp,” he said. The order said it would be in effect for 10 days, he added.

The order, publicised on Sunday, highlighted that “all staff quarters in the specific identified location share a common entrance” and “all protocols of social distancing, wearing of face masks and hand sanitisation are being violated”.

“RT PCR results of high-risk contacts tested yesterday and today are still awaited,“ the order stated, adding that it was, therefore, “necessary to declare the office building and staff quarters of the Shillong Times as a containment area so as to restrict unregulated entry and exit movement on site with certain measures for compliance by the public”.

Accordingly, nobody would be permitted to move in or out of the containment area and no gathering or function would be allowed.

Chaudhuri, however, alleged that the government issued the order without doing an “objective inspection” of the daily’s premises. A surveillance officer did visit Saturday evening, he added, “but he stood outside the building, did not enter and talked only to the manager”. “You can’t say there was violation [of protocol] just like that,” the proprietor insisted. “It was presumptuous.”

A proper inspection, Chaudhuri added, would have entailed checking the precautionary measures followed inside the building – whether there were hand wash, sanitiser and temperature guns available, whether the staff were wearing masks and hand gloves. “But none of this verification was done by the officer,” he said. “He just stood outside.”

In any case, it was unfair to declare an entire building a containment area for one or two positive cases, Chaudhuri argued. The current protocol in the state turns a building into a containment area at the detection of a single case, he pointed out. “It just takes the civil liberty away for those who are normal.”

The sequence of events leading to the temporary shutdown began on August 16 when one of the newspaper’s employees tested positive for coronavirus. The person worked in the machine room, Chaudhuri informed. The health department then began contact tracing and testing of all his co-workers in the machine section. When tests of two more employees came positive, the entire staff decided to undergo tests on August 21.

The daily has decided not to resume operations until the test results of all staffers arrive, Chaudhuri said. The premises have been completely sealed by the administration.

As per protocol, the Shillong Times has to keep its publication on hold until the area is de-notified as a containment area. However, the management has requested the government to expedite the test results and accordingly allow them to begin work as per necessary guidelines.

Sixty seven of the daily’s employees were tested on Friday in the first round of antigen testing, but only one turned out positive. According to Sampath Kumar, the state’s health secretary, 11 samples have since been resent for RT-PCR tests. The results are likely to come out later today, Kumar told Newslaundry.

“As the virus load sometimes takes a while to exhibit symptoms, it is important to put all the high-risk contacts in quarantine for safety reasons irrespective of the test results,” Kumar explained. “Therefore, we have asked them to strictly follow the protocol.”

The government has been in touch with the management of the newspaper, the senior official informed. As newspapers are listed among essential services, the government is trying to help them in every possible way, Kumar said. “It is a challenging situation but we have taken their case on a priority basis. We will discuss with them further after the test results are out,” he added.

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