Grieving universities in shock over loss of professors

Universities in states hit hard by India’s catastrophic latest COVID-19 wave are reporting dozens of deaths of professors and staff, with deaths so high and such a pall of shock and loss hanging over some campuses that faculty members say it is hard to see how university teaching can return to normal.

Delhi University teachers said the university has so far lost 30 professors and teaching staff, and other officials including the university’s joint registrar Sudhir Sharma. Hundreds of other teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 during the current coronavirus wave that took off in April.

Jamia Millia Islamia, a centrally funded university in New Delhi, has lost four professors and 15 staff, affecting the running of the university. Deaths from COVID-19 at Jamia included Shafeeque Ansari, former director of the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Basic Sciences.

Jamia’s university teachers’ association described an atmosphere of panic on campus as teachers “had to run around” for basic facilities for sick colleagues, including for oxygen and medication. Colleagues at Jamia are now calling on the university to compensate the deceased teachers’ families.

At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in northern Uttar Pradesh state, some 165 km from the capital New Delhi, as many as 16 professors have died of COVID-19 in the past three weeks. “The [Aligarh] fraternity is numbed by these figures. The services of all these teachers will be missed,” said AMU Vice-Chancellor Tariq Mansoor.

They included Shadaab Khan, head of the university’s medical department, who passed away on 8 May, and Ahmed Samdani, the dean of the AMU law school, who died on the same day, as well as celebrated scholars renowned country-wide for their expertise in their fields.

“We have lost several of our very senior faculty members; the situation is very alarming here,” said Shafey Kidwai, professor of mass communications at AMU.

The campus figures come as the World Health Organization declared on 5 May that in the first week of May, India accounted for nearly 50% of new COVID-19 cases and 25% of deaths reported across the world. India’s health ministry noted a total of 254,197 COVID-19 deaths as of 12 May.

On 8 May 4,000 deaths in just one day were recorded. More than 350,000 new cases are being registered daily. Medical experts say the actual numbers of dead and infected in India could be five to 10 times the official tallies, after taking more than 10 months to reach the first 10 million.

Collective grief

Cities across India have reported hospitals running out of beds and oxygen in the past three weeks as the healthcare system crumbles, and crematoria overflowing and having to operate through the nights. Many have died in hospital carparks waiting for beds or for scarce oxygen.

For students, colleagues and families of the deceased, “the grief is collective and hard to quantify,” the mass-circulation Indian Express newspaper wrote in a 12 May editorial. “The loss of vital intellectual capital and scholarship is not just a setback, but also has grim implications for any possibility of the education system returning to a semblance of ‘normal’.”

Aftab Alam, professor of international relations in the department of political science at AMU, was quoted in local media as saying that in his entire career he had never witnessed such a huge loss in such a short duration, adding that even text message pings on his mobile phone make him apprehensive in case they bring more bad news. He described the situation in Aligarh as “out of control”.

Tarushikha Sarvesh, assistant professor of sociology at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at AMU, wrote in late April: “People are making frantic calls to senior faculty members for help and attention but everyone seems to be more helpless during this wave.

“During the first wave of the virus [in May 2020] people felt more assured about the availability of medicines and oxygen, but this time every possible life-saving facility seems to be falling short. Injections and medicines are being arranged from Delhi and other places,” she wrote.

AMU’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, where many university employees have been treated, has been battling a shortage of medical oxygen, relying solely on its own three liquid oxygen plants, and unable to get “even a single oxygen cylinder from outside”, according to the Medical College Principal Shahid Ali Siddiqui. He said 25 doctors at the hospital were found to be infected with COVID-19 in the past fortnight.

In accordance with lockdown restrictions imposed by the state government, physical classes are not being held at the AMU campus, which is closed until 16 May, but online classes continued up until 5 May. “We cannot concentrate. Students are coping with the loss of teachers. We are in shock,” said a student who gave his name as Aftab.

In a letter to the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, AMU Vice-Chancellor Tariq Mansoor, whose brother also died of COVID-19, said on 9 May that 16 serving professors and another 18 retired ANU professors, besides other AMU employees, succumbed to the infection in the past 18 days.

There is a possibility that “a particular variant may be circulating in areas around the AMU campus and surrounding localities, which has led to these deaths”, Mansoor said, stressing the need for a study to control the spread of the virus.

Knowledge and expertise lost

Another hard-hit state, the Western state of Gujarat, is also seeing huge casualties, including on campuses.

“Unbelievable knowledge and expertise are lost to the country; we are all grieving for our professor, and it is hard to see how she can be replaced,” said a student at the Central University of Gujarat in Ahmedabad where the dean of the university’s school of nanoscience, Professor Indrani Banerjee, succumbed to COVID last month after struggling to get a hospital bed. Ahmedabad is one of the worst affected towns in Gujarat.

Banerjee’s own students took her in a private vehicle to the COVID-designated hospital in the city where she was refused admission for not being brought in a designated ambulance. Students and faculty members had to arrange her cremation as her husband was out of state and travelling back to Ahmedabad.

Citing lack of infrastructure, machines, and qualified and trained staff, only nine out of 26 universities in Gujarat have been able to start COVID testing in their laboratories following the state government order on 18 April that laboratory facilities of state, private and central universities would be used for reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR testing. Of these universities, half a dozen, including the Central University of Gujarat, have no RT-PCR machines. Others are upgrading infrastructure, quality control and training of their staff.