During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths of teachers got a huge media attention especially at the intersecting period of April-May 2021. The deaths of several hundred school teachers in Uttar Pradesh and the demise of professors at considerable rate in universities especially in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Delhi University (DU) highlighted in both print and are widely in the social media. This situation begs a serious question; why did teachers die in unusually large numbers during covid-19 pandemic?  In a partial response to this quest, let me put a subtle point at the very onset that the cause of death of teachers is just not only epidemiological but a political one as well. Nevertheless the same can be said for the large number of unaccounted deaths occurring countrywide due to political apathy and state inaction; the teachers however being part of the state machinery faced the heat in a bit different way.

The pandemic took a severe toll on health, job, creativity and the dignity of the teaching community. Due to the closure of educational institutions and a thorough shift to online learning, teachers are already under pressure to deal with new modes of educational dissemination, and are attempting to come to terms with pandemic induced grievous social reality. Many teachers even are made to fend for survival by doing no less than menial or semi-skilled jobs such as service delivery, farming, selling vegetables, etc. as some lost jobs or being paid inadequately by their private employers. Worse! The compelling election duties, and, covid duties at some places, pushed government school teachers into overwhelming anxiety, and, worst, into the fatal trap of the wracking pandemic.

Elections at What Cost! Do Teachers’ Lives Matter?

Presumably, the election processes acted as ‘super-spreader’ of covid infection in different parts of the country. Insignificant though, High Courts of some states took a serious view of Election Commission’s in/action for this. Strangely, the State showed total apathy and political will, as it conducted elections during the pandemic and the lives of millions of people were put to unbearable risk. Strange enough, a bureaucrat turned Minister in the Central Government remarked ‘You do not stop elections in a place like India’! Unfortunately, elections at different levels (Lok Sabha by-elections, State Assembly, Municipal and Panchayat), during the first wave and in the midst of the much dangerous second wave of the pandemic, were conducted in most parts of the country without anticipating the twirling apocalyptic catastrophe. Pandemic in its second wave monstrously engulfed the lives of scores of teachers solely due to the state’s narcissistic attitude and inaction. During Panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone, reportedly hundreds of school teachers, including a pregnant and newly appointed lady teacher, lost their lives as thousands got covid infection during the election duty. Sadly, the higher Judiciary, both Supreme Court and High Court in case of UP, too took the life of teachers for granted, as the voice of teachers’ union was ignored, and a go-ahead for elections was pushed through. UP is not the culprit alone however, fatalities of teachers, due to infection during election duty, occurred in different parts of the country. During both waves of the pandemic, the innumerable shocking news stories of the demise of helpless school teachers, due to covid infection during election process, emerged from Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Delhi, UP, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Assam.

Sadly, no robust mechanism was put in place to contain the possible risk during the election process and afterwards. Needless to say, when a large number of school teachers got infected, they were being ruthlessly abandoned to their fate. The risk was further aggravated by the lack of beds, oxygen, ventilators and a corruption ridden system. Pandemic has put all our systems into tatters and proved policies as useless documents. The High Court of Delhi on April 27, 2021 taking note of black marketing of the oxygen and prevailing lawlessness in the state vexedly remarked, ‘your system has failed’, and, also used the scathing metaphor of ‘ostrich putting its head in sand’ for the central government for its inability to handle oxygen supply.

Pandemic Crippling Universities!

Unfortunately, a considerable number of teachers and staff members in universities viz. AMU, DU, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), etc., succumbed to the raging pandemic. For instance, AMU appeared in media highlights for losing more than 40 faculty members including 17 serving professors, from 20th April to 7th May 2021, within a span of 18 days. Fatalities of similar scale occurred in DU wherein about 35-36 teachers reportedly died in a month. Woefully, such tragic deaths of a large number of teaching professionals due to covid include not only senior and renowned professors, but many younger ones and early career assistant professors in their 30s and 40s. This is such a huge and irreparable loss to the academic community and intellectual growth of the nation.

Is it not right to say that many of such untimely deaths are no less than ‘murders’ because these are occurring due to lack of institutional support and inadequate health infrastructure, a pure case of state’s inaction and irresponsibility. Sadly, many shocking news of the demise of covid infected university professors due to lack of requisite health facilities such as oxygen, ICU bed, ventilator and ambulance resurfaced in media from states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

In Lieu of way forward

‘Everything else can wait, but not precious human lives’ must be the thumb rule for the state to act steadfastly with foresightedness. A special vaccination drive must be started for teaching professionals and other staff members in educational institutions or residential university campuses. While focusing on centrally funded technical institutions (such as IITs, IIITs, NITs, IISc, and IISERs), the Ministry of Education on March 23, 2021 issued an advisory for vaccination drive and other similar measures. Why action oriented guidelines can’t similarly be issued for universities and other educational institutions across the country! Given the raging pandemic, the universities also should not sit idle! Good that a few of universities like DU, AMU and Central university of Gujarat have proactively, probably with the special efforts of teachers’ union, initiated vaccination drives in their campus. Apoorvanand, a professor in DU, aptly remarked that universities should not behave as ‘normal’ in such unusually tragic times, besides making an empathetic connection with students and the hopeless masses, the universities must ensure institutional support for teachers and other stakeholders for their safety and well-being. However, mention may be made that in absence of state support, the university’s individual efforts are unlikely to be scaled up and sustained.

The state should provide adequate funds to universities to fully support their efforts and equipping existing health facilities within their campuses to tackle any unforeseen health crisis. Likewise, a robust mechanism must be put in place in universities to address lifestyle related chronic diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure, etc. due to long hour sittings, excruciating hierarchy, dictates of politically appointed bosses and, at times, troubling non-academic workload. It is very obvious that people with comorbidities are more prone to fall into the fatal trap of the pandemic. Alas! The dreadful pandemic, in collusion with state’s complacency, inaction and typical Indian work culture, is taking a severe toll on the lives of teaching professionals and enervating the cherished temples of learning. Can this collusion be stopped! There should not be any room for complacency and inaction. An enduring working and fair system must be put in place. Precious human lives and much cherished historical institutions of learning and knowledge generation should be safeguarded!

Saheed Meo is Assistant Professor at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at saheedmeo@gmail.com


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