Delhi universities battle to fight COVID-19 campus surge

Delhi University – one of India’s largest universities with some 91 constituent colleges – has told the government that it needs its own COVID care facility for sick faculty, staff and family members, having already lost nearly 15 members of faculty and senior administrative officials to COVID-19 in the past few weeks.

Delhi University has over 40,000 students and thousands of teachers and staff.

The Indian capital, New Delhi, has been badly hit by the COVID-19 second wave with hospitals overrun and ICU (intensive care unit) beds in short supply as the virus spread faster than during the first wave in 2020, leading to a spiralling demand for oxygen, which is in short supply.

Large numbers of teachers, staff and students are recovering from COVID or testing positive and many others are helping stricken relatives in the daily search for hospital beds, medication and oxygen supplies.

India registered nearly 400,000 new COVID-19 cases on 2 May, a record, having registered more than 300,000 a day since 21 April, with every third sample tested coming up positive.

Big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have been badly hit with a record of more than 24,000 new cases a day being registered in Delhi in the last week of April, dropping to 18,000 on 3 May.

Doctors in Delhi described the system of hospital admissions as having collapsed. Social media and citizen volunteering platforms have aired SOS messages in desperate pleas for information on available hospital beds.

In a letter sent on 22 April to Delhi University’s Acting Vice-Chancellor Pooran Chand Joshi, members of the university’s executive council and academic council said: “We are facing a far worse situation as compared to last year and hundreds of teachers and employees are running from pillar to post for a single bed in any hospital.

“Some of them have lost their precious lives and many of them are struggling. In such a situation, the university should extend its hands of care and compassion to students, teachers and employees.

“We can seek help from our own medical and nursing colleges. Many professors of our medical colleges are part of the many state and central government committees and their expertise can guide us in developing this facility,” the letter said.

Delhi University’s (DU’s) affiliated colleges are currently submitting details of medical staff to pool medical resources, Joshi said on 3 May. Two DU colleges have now created isolation centres.

After one of its teachers, Sangita Sharma, succumbed to COVID, DU’s Lakshmibai College set up a 100-bed isolation centre inside its campus in collaboration with an NGO and with permission from the local district administration. It will begin taking in COVID patients from this week. It said it had also organised facilities for oxygen supply.

However, the college it said it could only cater for those under 70 years of age with mild and moderate symptoms.

DU is now setting up a 180-bed isolation centre at DU’s Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College in association with a religious organisation, the college said via Twitter. Of the 180 beds, 125 will be oxygen beds, it said. Three doctors and three nurses will be provided by the local Delhi government.

IIT Delhi sets up its own facility

The move at DU came after the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi), an autonomous institution outside the Delhi University system, announced on 19 April that with the city’s medical infrastructure overburdened by the “unprecedented crisis”, it would set up a special COVID-19 care facility on campus for students and staff.

It would seek help from doctors residing on campus to provide consultations, the institution said.

The centre was up and running within days, after IIT Delhi Director V Ramgopal Rao said in an email to students, faculty and staff members on 19 April: “Medical infrastructure within the campus and outside is unable to cope with the rise in cases.

“While those living in homes are allowed to isolate themselves, all COVID positive students living in hostels right now have to go to Delhi government COVID centres. This is causing huge issues for students,” Rao noted.

Rao had earlier advised students to return home and those living off campus to avoid coming to the institute unless “necessary”. The campus has been closed for face-to-face classes since March though students had been allowed to conduct research and laboratory work according to official COVID-19 guidelines.

The institute currently has more than 10,000 students enrolled. Last week IIT Delhi revealed that 22% of the 3,910 students who responded to an institute online survey in the last week of April said they had tested positive for COVID-19 between March and April. Around 857 students said they had contracted the infection since March, while 61% said a family member, or someone close to them, tested positive in the same period.

Students said the entire campus community was affected by the trauma of the crisis even if they were not actually suffering from the virus, with many helping stricken family members.

With hard-hit Delhi residents grappling with systemic failure in dealing with the COVID-19 spike, many are turning to local communities, self-help groups and university-based groups for help.

IIT Delhi alumni launched a dedicated website to help the families of COVID-19 patients with verified leads on various resources. The website provides live tracking on vacant beds, oxygen availability, plasma, food, videos by renowned doctors and helpline information, among others. The website is basically a non-profit app called CovRelief developed by three recent graduates.

IIT Kanpur, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, launched a similar initiative through its Startup Incubation and Innovation Centre. Called India COVID Support, it provides verified information on the availability of oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, ambulances, COVID tests, ICU units and other related resources that Delhi residents are having to scramble to find.

“We have taken out oxygen cylinders from our labs and are giving it to the government. It’s an emergency situation and we are chipping in,” Rao said, adding that it would not affect the work of the institutions in the short term.

Amid what is seen as a government failure to prepare for the current pandemic wave, the Delhi High Court on Tuesday told the central government that the IITs or Indian Institutes of Management would do a better job if the Centre (central government) handed over the management of oxygen supplies to them.

More calls for campus facilities

The teachers’ association at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a graduate institution, in late April also called for special facilities on campus, pointing to the example of IIT Delhi and other affected campuses.

“JNU is no exception and in the last two weeks there has been a sharp increase in cases, which has caused panic and stress among [campus] residents,” JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) said.

“The problem faced by many faculty members and administrative staff living in cramped housing on campus of effectively isolating afflicted family members is a serious one. Ramping up of testing and creating quarantine facilities for asymptomatic persons and mild cases on campus constitute another important concern,” JNUTA said.

The university last month constituted a ‘COVID-19 Response Team’ to deal with the sharp spike in cases and take necessary measures to control the spread of the virus. The top-level team is supported by student volunteers and also coordinates with Delhi government officials on testing, vaccination – with vaccinations already organised on campus – and hospitalisation when necessary.

At the time the response team was set up around 18 April, JNU had around 74 positive cases on campus, with more than 332 COVID-19 positive cases reported on the JNU campus since March 2020, according to the university administration.

Exam suspensions

In a letter to the DU administration on 1 May, Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) called for the suspension of all classes and exams.

“The second wave of the pandemic has wreaked havoc in the lives of all sections of the university community. The loss of so many lives is tragic and is causing physical and psychological trauma to all,” DUTA said.

“The fact that students are battling an illness, of themselves and family members, is evident from the fact that attendance in classes has significantly dropped,” DUTA said. “Students and teachers are not mentally and physically in a state to continue with the teaching-learning process.”

The Education Ministry’s Higher Education Department this week issued a directive to all centrally funded institutions including the IITs to postpone physical exams scheduled for May. Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare said the decision would be reviewed in June.

DU on 2 May announced the postponement until 1 June of final-year examinations originally due to begin from 15 May. Exams will be online and in open book format, the university said after a meeting of all heads of department and deans chaired by the vice-chancellor.

DS Rawat, dean of examinations at DU, said examination branch officials had been battling coronavirus. Statistics revealed by the DU administration showed that some 70 staff of the university’s examinations branch were suffering from COVID-19.

However, Rawat ruled out any deferral beyond 1 June. “Many students have got job offers and in order to accept them, they need to have their final results. Students have also applied to foreign universities and require results within a time frame,” he said.

But DU students launched a petition for exams to be cancelled. Signed by more than 3,000 students so far, they said that while some were battling COVID themselves, others were tending to their COVID-positive family members, and having to prepare for exams at the same time was taking a toll on their mental health.