Nineteen employees of the Punjab Kesari group and 16 individuals who had come into contact with them had tested positive for COVID-19 by 9 pm on 26 April, according to a health official and a government official. By then, there were 68 active cases of COVID-19 in Punjab’s Jalandhar district. Employees of the Punjab Kesari group and their contacts formed more than forty-eight percent of the active cases of COVID-19 in the district. According to the health official, till 25 April, more than two hundred samples had been taken from the organisation’s employees. As contact tracing is ongoing, more cases with links to Punjab Kesari are expected to be reported, health officials and members of the administration in Jalandhar told me.
The group asked all employees to work from home only around mid-April, according to Avinash Chopra, the vice president of the group and its joint editor. But Chopra claimed that the organisation began taking precautions against COVID-19 in early March itself. He said that the organisation had asked authorities to test everyone in the office for COVID-19 after one of its employees tested positive. The results were coming back only after 50 hours, he said. “Uss doraan kya hua,”—In that time—“like 50 hours, if I am infected, I would be infecting anybody who is in contact with me,” Chopra said. “So that is how it spread in organisation, and in the city also.”
Punjab Kesari is a leading media house which publishes Punjab Kesari in Hindi, Hind Samachar in Urdu and Jagbani in Punjabi. While the media in Punjab reported that cases of COVID-19 had emerged from a “vernacular” daily, almost no publication specified that they were referring to Punjab Kesari. The group’s multi-storied office is located in the thickly populated area of Pucca Bagh in Jalandhar, surrounded by narrow lanes. The administration official told me that they would investigate if it was possible to follow the principles of social distancing in the office.
At least three of the employees who have contracted the virus live in rented accommodation around the office. After a 70-year-old—whose tenant was a Punjab Kesari employee with the virus—also tested positive, all the localities where the employees with COVID-19 were living have been sealed, the health official told me. Barring the ten who have contracted the infection, the father of a sub-editor at Punjab Kesari and six of his contacts have also tested positive for COVID-19. However, the sub-editor’s report is still pending.
Chopra said six people from the organisation went to the Hola Mohalla in Punjab’s Rupnagar district—an annual six-day Sikh event that is attended by lakhs of members of the community. “We asked them to go on leave and it will be a paid leave. They tested negative,” he said. Sometime in April, two of Punjab Kesari’s staff, who hailed from Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district, travelled back home in a milk van, according to the administration official. They were caught and tested positive for the coronavirus.
When asked about this, Chopra said, “They fled because they were homesick because of the kind of testing going on in the organisation and the kind of restrictions we were putting on everybody.” He specified that “they fled with a leave application which was not sanctioned by us.”
The statements that Chopra gave me did not seem to add up. He said that the first employee at the organisation to contract the virus was a page designer. According to Chopra, the page designer was in touch with a “religious person” who had come from overseas and who was the first case of COVID-19 in Punjab. “We never knew that. He was working in the organisation but was in touch with him,” Chopra said. “He went on leave in the first week of April, citing that he was suffering from cold and fever and whatever.” When asked if he disclosed that his name was in the list of the religious person’s contacts, Chopra said, “No, he didn’t tell us. And this is how it went wrong.”
According to Chopra, in the first week of April, a woman passed away in the area where the page designer was living, after the same “religious person had made contact with someone there too.” The authorities quarantined people in that area. The page designer “tested positive since they test all the people in such areas,” Chopra said.
After that, he said, the organisation arranged for the entire staff to be tested, including the family of the owners and the management. Over a period of four–five days, the administration took everyone’s samples. As there is no testing machine at Jalandhar, they were being sent to Amritsar and the results were coming in 50 hours later. On 25 April, a Saturday, Chopra told me that the office has completely shut down since the “last Monday or Tuesday” and the entire staff was now operating from home.