SHILLONG: As one more machine man from the printing press of the oldest newspaper of the state, The Shillong Times (TST) was tested Covid19 positive, bringing the figure to 4, the fear of contagion among the staff of the prominent media house, all under quarantine, heightened. But how they reached this situation is a story of lies, false pride, negligence and glory hunting, allege those in the know.

Reports of various media managements that have no concern for the safety for their working journalists and other staff are viral among journalists’ groups on social media during the pandemic when they are being fired without notice, subjected to hefty pay-cuts and forced to work without protection or health insurance.

But this time this story has hit home in Meghalaya with the staffers of The Shillong Times at odds with their management over the treatment being meted out after first case of Covid19 came to light on August 16 in their House.

It was a machine man from the printing press section who had been tested positive on that day. He was said to hail from the a neighboring area called the ‘Burnside Compound” in which 40 people had been tested Covid19 positive a day earlier, sources said, pointing out that this alone should have immediately alerted the management to take precautions.

Now with three more cases among the staff and the office declared a containment zone by the Deputy Commissioner of East Khasi hills (EKH) on August 22, the newspaper premises has to remain closed till the DC lifts the containment notice.

It is said this could have been avoided if the management had listened to the workers’ pleas after the first case when some of them had asked the management to follow the standard safety protocols by shutting down the office for a few days to sanitize and to contact tracing and testing, said sources.

But this was ignored. Sources said that many of the employees were unhappy with the management for living in denial after the first case. In fact, sources said that some of the employees had confided in them that that they had not been informed of the first case officially and that they had come to know only through the office grapevine.

“They were not told by the management that this had happened. When they came to know among them they were all confused, scared and did not know whether they should continue to work or not, there was no communication from the Editor or the owners,” the sources said.

The sources further added that the staff, who are already tense and hurting under a 50 percent paycut all around which was done in the first month of the original lockdown ie March itself, felt betrayed at the negligence and callous attitude of the management towards their safety.

Then on August 21 another machine man and a driver tested positive. They were among the primary contacts of the newspaper’s Index patient. Even after taking tests the driver who tested positive was still on duty and driving staff around.

Safety protocols say that primary contacts who have undergone tests should be quarantined for at least for 7 to 14 days as per the state rules.

Sources said that allegedly the staff was not informed that the driver was a primary contact of the Index patient and that he was waiting for his test results, thereby exposing them to the virus.

At the same time the machine man mentioned above had not been isolated and was staying with his family till his test results came out on August 21st. Sources said that in his particular case he should have been quarantined immediately and looked after properly as he has co-morbidities and had just come out of a stroke.

Sources alleged that he was whisked away by the management to a guest house only after his test results came as positive without informing the health department.

It is learnt that after the first case all the machine staff and other workers who came into normal contact with them were tested. While most tested negative, the test reports of some drivers and some machine men were still awaited.

Sources said that what amounted to alleged criminal negligence is the fact that the management did not wait for the quarantine period of those staffers to end and without waiting for the test results they were asked to come to work.

It was only on the night of August 18 that the management woke up to the seriousness of the situation and the machine room was shut and the edition (August 19) was printed in the printing press of another daily in the city.

Meanwhile after August 22, sources close to workers in TST said that they had mustered their wits again to ask the management to close down the office for a few days and sanitize the place for their safety. They also asked that all the staff be tested. But this of course was not agreed to. Neither was their plea to allow working from home and run the office with a skeletal staff given any thought.

It is alleged that the powerful newspaper management is using its clout to lift the containment tag from its premises which was put there under the safety protocols claiming that newspapers fall under the ‘essential services’ category and cannot be shut down.

But government officials point out that Covid19 SoPs come into play whenever any Covid19 positive cases surface and in the course of the pandemic, the state has had to shut down for a few days, hundreds of localities and buildings, whole markets, shops, several police stations, hospitals (Bethany Hospital for 40 days) and other premier hospitals, and recently even the Meghalaya High Court (MHC) which closed for three days following COVID19 contact tracing among the staff.

It is also said that the TST management is being unfair to the staff and the locality by playing the victim card and claiming that the government has imposed the safety protocols baselessly. In fact, the government health officials were apprised of the toxic situation in the TST by worried observers but they too had been slow to respond.

It is learnt from sources that the staff worked through the days after August 16 in a fearful daze. Till the local village authority , the Dorbar Shnong of Kench’s Trace, Oxford Hill & Rilbong, beleaguered with rising cases in their locality dashed off a letter to the DC questioning as to why premises of the the Shillong Times was still not declared a containment zone even after 3 cases found among the employees. The next day, ie on August 23, the state government took a call and declared the TST premises as a containment area and asked all the employees to take the Covid19 test. This brought some relief to the staff who were still being asked to come to work.