We Are No Longer Afraid: On Institutional Responses to COVID-19

The following is a (lightly edited)1 document authored by students at a prominent institute of higher education. The document, which was shared with Notes on the Academy, speaks of the institute’s ham-handed and bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Interspersed with the excerpts are commentary (italicised) along with links to similar reports from other institutions of higher learning.

[Our university] attracts the sharpest minds, and provides ample research opportunities. But, like all other systems with entrenched hierarchical power structures, [our university] faces several issues unique to it. What the coronavirus has done across the world is to bluntly magnify the issues that existed before the pandemic started. We started writing this article in July, but did not send it anywhere because we was afraid of the repercussions. Now, after all that has happened, we are no longer afraid.

Early on, in the month of March 2020, a staggering [less than 40] COVID-19 cases in the state forced the [state government] to close all educational institutions. [Our] ever so compliant [university], instructed [all of the thousands] of its students to leave the campus premises, with just 2 days notice. These students were not paid the fares for their trips back home. 

The many failures of the administration – and in fact most world governments – in this regard are a consequence of many serious shortcomings, inequities, and injustices that have existed since long before the term COVID-19 was coined.

I was part of a handful of lucky (?) students who were permitted to stay back on campus, and was privy to the large scale mismanagement that has run rampant these past several months. Now, when the pandemic has reached unforeseen proportions, it is worth looking back at what has happened since March, and evaluate how excellently the flagship university of India has handled this pandemic.

Administrative Decisions

In recent years, it has become known to the scientific community that chaos plays a key role in all physical and biological processes that influence mankind. The administration was quick to adapt, and has introduced chaos in administrative matters. Minor changes in conditions on one day would be severely amplified by the administration on the following days. 

Treating Students Like Cargo: [Our university] achieved its first pinnacle of vacillation when it decided to send all students touring throughout the country, only to call them back when the pandemic was flaring up in June. While asking the students to flee was inspired by the state government’s strategy, ordering them back was probably a sudden surge of enlightenment. The dangers posed by said enlightenment to the health of the students and other members cannot be understated. They have since followed with a large number of return and halt instructions like some horrific game of musical chairs. The human cost of this mismanagement has been enormous.

Graduating Undergrads: In a masterstroke, the administration demanded that graduating students vacate their rooms within one day of their return to campus. Sources in the undergraduate community had told us that the administration would not budge from their stance despite numerous e-mails with polite requests. Should the administration continue with this attitude, they would be met with protests, the sources said. Finally giving in, the administration decided to magnanimously allow the students to hire packers and movers and remotely have their possessions shipped to their homes. However, in typical fashion, there was a total lack of communication between the administration, the security office, and the hostel in-charge, leading to total chaos during packing and moving, which cost several students in time and money.

Breaking Into Hostels: In a not well publicised move, the administration pondered over converting [two] girls’ hostels into quarantine centres. [A professor at our university] inquired with the residents of these hostels whether their rooms could be broken into, and their possessions “neatly packed” into cardboard boxes. Understandably, and completely predictably, the students panicked. That this request was even made, after the scathing unanimous response to a similar decision in IISER Bhopal, is incredulous. While this decision was immediately cancelled, [not long after], a notice was sent out that [another hostel] would be converted into a quarantine centre in spite of objections by several students.

Apart from the IISER Bhopal incident2 mentioned here, a similar combination of administrative incompetence and disrespect for students is currently playing out in IISER Thiruvananthapuram.3 And let us not forget the medical students sent to help with Covid cases without payment.4

Incapable Students’ Council

While the administration went on what looked like a methamphetamine-fuelled rampage, the student community could rest reassured that their opinions were being voiced by [our] elected student body, the creatively named ‘Students’ Council’. Or at least, that is what should have happened, ideally speaking.

For years now, the Students’ Council has been a puppet organisation. Gone are the days when the student body locked horns with [eminent authority figures] to uphold an independent and unadulterated student voice. As quoted by one student, a more appropriate title for the elected body would be the “administration’s inefficient propaganda machine”. While UG students are among the worst affected by the administration’s indecisiveness, their representative has insistently remained silent. 

While this grave incompetence of the Students’ Council has now become public knowledge, it is in no way new. When students lost the privilege to send e-mails to the institute community, the Students’ Council did not raise its voice. The council also did not raise its voice [during grave episodes of] institutional negligence, or when students were brutalised in JMI and JNU, or even when heinous acts such as the CAA-NRC were in the works. [Our university] remains one of the only [major institutions of higher education] whose official student body did not issue a declaration condemning these atrocities.

Perhaps it is no wonder that a growing part of the student community is demanding the dissolution of the council. They are long past their term, and have proven beyond doubt to be completely inept. And after all, a marionette of the administration that in theory represents the voices of the students does more harm to the students than good. 

Is it a wonder that the student council is this toothless organisation, when even asking questions can result in months-long suspensions,5 and successful advocacy can hinder emplyment opportunities?6

Scholarships and Salaries

Largely a problem created by the central government, several students have not received their stipends for the past few months. The request to extend the duration of scholarship coverage was also denied by central funding agencies.

One cannot of course, blame [our university] for this. It is a consequence of the tremendous and worsening disrespect for academia in general, and the sciences in particular, in our country. However, there are many measures the administration could have taken which they did not. For instance, they could have provided short-term funding for the students most affected by financial disasters. They could have waived hostel and mess fees and amenities for students not on campus. At the very least, the administration could have raised their voice in support of the students. The institute has failed at every step here.

This is also a lesson to the aloof apolitical members of the student body: science does not occur in a vacuum; and the first lesson any scientist needs to know is that science is very political. Your privilege might be keeping you comfortable and well-fed during this pandemic, but there are many others, even students of science, not as fortunate.

This has also been happening sadly often.7

Research Setbacks

Overall research output has quite predictably declined during the pandemic. With the exception of the study of coronaviruses, all branches of science seem to be performing badly. The worse affected disciplines are without doubt those that require continuous regular lab-work, such as biology and chemistry. It is no surprise that the same happened at [our university]. However, this has been compounded by several negligent decisions on part of the administration. 

Clearly, the biggest contributor to the problem is the fact that students were asked to leave the institute at such short notice. A large number of students could not make appropriate plans to pause their research appropriately. Could not one person in this organisation of several hundred distinguished [academics] have foreseen this impending closure in March? Did the decision to send students home really have to be a last minute one?

Further issues arise from the fact that different research groups in [our university] work in very different ways. [Our university] decided to use this as a crutch, and not address the issue of research setbacks in any concrete manner. There are many things that could have been done – extension of degree duration by a sensible amount with funding and accommodation to all students who asked for it; postponement of all comprehensive exams and colloquia whenever needed; and delaying the upcoming semester to allow students to catch up with their research. 

In sum, the lack of a centralised management plan for hundreds of days of lost research time is a glaring flaw in the [university’s] COVID-19 response.

Poor Teaching

It is obviously not surprising that teaching has taken a blow the world-over. In countries more developed than India, most people have steady access to the internet, and therefore classes can easily be moved online. In India, online education is a risky option that would have amplified class and caste inequalities that were already present.

These inequalities at the school level have been documented in a report from Azim Premji University, summarised in The Wire.8 At the college level, the Supreme Court has doubled down in a baffling ruling forbidding states from delaying final exams. The ludicrousness of this decision has been discussed widely.9

In March, [our university] did not, fortunately, move all its classes online. However, it did not do anything else either. When the institute closed in the middle of the even semester, no centralised decision about coursework was decided by the institute. Faculty were left to deal with courses in any way they pleased, and this led to widespread chaos. Several courses with laboratory components added unnecessary theoretical components, and most courses held online exams or assessments. In general, teaching standards in the even semester of 2020 (and probably the upcoming odd semester) were abysmal.

It would have been relatively easy for [our university] to convert all grading for all courses in this semester to a pass-fail basis, as any evaluation done this year will be unreliable. Whenever possible, important courses in course-heavy programmes could be commuted to higher years. This could have been planned in advance so that the semester could have ended earlier, instead of progressing to July.

[Our university] has always had serious issues with the way its courses are taught. We lack a uniform understanding of what a credit or a grade means. While this gives some exceptional faculty the opportunity to create some exceptional courses, on average, it is a system primed for chaos. The pandemic has laid this lacuna bare. As the upcoming semester has moved online completely, students are nervous about the consequences.

It is worth mentioning here the case of the professor at IIT Roorkee who didn’t consider the death of a father sufficient reason to miss class,10 and the silence of the institute on this matter.

Declining Mental Health

Given all the factors mentioned earlier, it is not surprising that student mental health is on a decline at this premier institute. Bad mental health is generally affected by the unpredictability of one’s future and the social environment one is in. The world over, the coronavirus has made futures seem bleak and unpredictable for students while also simultaneously isolating them to an unprecedented degree. Institutions could respond to this with mandatory counselling for all students, periodic online checks, information campaigns, and similar study driven measures. The [healthcare center on campus] has sent a large number of emails, the most common ones concerning yoga

One definite factor that exacerbates mental health problems is living with abusive friends or family members. Such toxic conditions could no doubt lead to worsening mental health among several students. However, several students have informed us that the [university] administration turned a blind eye on this issue when they repeatedly wrote to the administration asking to be permitted to stay in their hostel rooms.

The number of incidents of suicide and selfharm by students has been increasing over the past two years. [Our university] had increased surveillance and security, tightened its attendance policies, and taken steps towards improving mental health conditions. None of these are appropriate or necessary. What they have always failed at understanding is that mental health problems among students are a symptom of larger problems: they are an inevitable manifestation of the kinds of systemic power structures seen at [our university], which can be extremely toxic and exploitative.

One case worth mentioning here is the suicide of a man who had been previously known to require mental health support.11

Exploitation

Of the [few 100s of] students who were initially allowed to stay back on campus in March, a surprisingly large proportion were from the biology division. More specifically, they were from those departments that demanded continuous lab work and regular presence in the lab. How many of these students stayed willingly on campus, however, is a different question. An alarming number of these students have informed us that they were pressured, persuaded, or coerced to stay on campus against their will.

This is a symptom of a fairly old problem. With the kind of power imbalance that exists between a PI and a PhD student, is the ‘choice’ to stay back really a choice? As one student puts it, it is not a choice when there is a knife to your throat. The biology departments especially have a reputation for being exploitative to the students who are lower-placed in their hierarchy, which is quite twisted. These departments have even been known to encourage strange forms of hierarchy within a single research group.

Perhaps one of the most cruel acts of the administration during the pandemic has been directed towards their contract staff. All security guards, janitorial staff, and mess workers at [our university] are hired contractually from an external agency. These men and women enjoy no privileges which are essentially the basic tenets of employment: no one consulted them when the institute planned how the buildings would be cleaned and disinfected, or how the mess would work. Many security guards confided in us that they were uncomfortable with using restrooms and water filters with students in quarantine. A janitorial staff member has informed us that she was asked to find her own way of travelling to and from [our university] when bus services were halted during the first Indian Lockdown, at the risk of losing her job if she failed to turn up.

This is an even more serious problem that has always existed. The contract staff at [our university]are not represented at all when decisions are made. They are not allowed to form unions, and as contract staff, are not eligible [for] benefits that are due to [other] employees. 

This contractualisation of non-academic labour in our institutes, mentioned also in our manifesto, is another badly documented problem in Indian academia whose prevalence is underappreciated. Some discussion of this issue, both in general and at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, in particular, can be found at Sanhati.12 These unethical practices, according to an unofficial estimate,13 led to robbing 2000 workers of a whopping Rs. 2.7 Crore between them in 2007. There are also reports of contract labourers working at academic institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic without compensation.14

Long-term foundation-level administrative reforms are gravely needed at [our university]. We need to change the way our labs, courses, research, administration, and employment work. We need to change how we address mental health issues, and start addressing underlying inequities and imbalances. We need to eliminate the incompetent and pointless Students’ Council and replace it with a body more true to the voices of the community. We need to ensure better representation and rights to the contract staff who have built and have been maintaining all our facilities.

Footnotes

1 The only edits made were to redact the name of the university, and the names of people.

2 Yadav, S. (2020, June 11). Students at MANIT, IISER Bhopal protest against hostel takeover for quarantine facility. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/students-at-manit-iiser-bhopal-protest-against-hostel-takeover-for-quarantine-facility/article31805909.ece

3 Ravi, A. (2020, November 18). The News Minute | Kerala. The News Minute. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/iiser-thiruvananthapuram-wants-students-vacate-hostels-during-pandemic-137921

4 Rana, N. (2020, October 15). “We paid the money. Now, Give us our e-tablets.” Ahmedabad Mirror. https://ahmedabadmirror.indiatimes.com/ahmedabad/cover-story/we-paid-the-money-now-give-us-our-e-tablets-/articleshow/78671091.cms. See also Margi 📽️ on. (2020, September 25). [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/MaRgi_JaDav/status/1309728649097015296.

5 Argument with faculty over COVID testing camp leads to suspensions. (2020, November 24). The Life of Science. https://thelifeofscience.com/2020/11/24/iiser-suspends-misbehaviour/.

6 Doctor says AIIMS refused him a job because of his activism for doctors’ welfare. (2020, November 21). Akhilesh Pandey. https://caravanmagazine.in/health/doctor-aiims-refused-job-activism

7 Chatterjee, S. (2020, November 22). The News Minute | Karnataka. The News Minute. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/karnataka-slashes-fellowship-amounts-minority-phd-students-66-138181.
T. (2020, October 16). Medical students allege delay in Covid stipend. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/medical-students-allege-delay-in-covid-stipend/articleshow/78689709.cms

8 See Myths of Online Education. (2020, September). Azim Premji Foundation. https://azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/SitePages/pdf/Myths_of_online_education.pdf. For a summary, see The Wire Staff (2020, November 18). Online School Education in India Proving Ineffective, Inadequate: Study. The Wire. https://thewire.in/education/online-education-government-schools-study.

9 Supreme court rules that students must sit final exams. (2020, September 1). University World News. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200901085550405. See the discussions P. (2020a, June 28). Universities should not conduct exams amid pandemic, online tests ‘discriminatory’, says Kapil Sibal. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/universities-should-not-conduct-exams-amid-pandemic-online-tests-discriminatory-says-kapil-sibal/article31938294.ece and Haider, M. K. (2020, August 29). Coerced Exams During Pandemic Is Ludicrous. TheLeaflet. https://www.theleaflet.in/coerced-exams-during-pandemic-is-ludicrous/

10 Tweets by Bikramjit Karmakar. (2020, November 24). [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/bikramjitk/status/1331247312564330501

11 India, T. (2020, August 19). Bengaluru IISc student commits suicide fearing Covid infection. Tribuneindia News Service. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/bengaluru-iisc-student-commits-suicide-fearing-covid-infection-128365

12 Contract Workers at IITK: A Response to Commonly Held Misconceptions. (2020, May 23). Sanhati. http://sanhati.com/excerpted/2379/

13 Archana, T., & Anantharaman, M. (2007). Just Give Them Their Due: Monitoring Minimum Wages at IIT Kanpur. Voices, 29–34, available at https://dd5fc2d8-a-62cb3a1a-s-sites.googlegroups.com/site/iitkcitizensforum/voices/alumnivoices.pdf?attachauth=ANoY7crqBuO8xgJtQ5O4MmYx1gk7hDYJDaQnIJ45qmulR1Oi5rq-Ocz1SX_2ffLeosIF7bcNNpY9TEShEFd7G_U6RMIsb2MibtDlF03PbdkVxP9HcHvK_4madtYJg1icgRlIOaNG4-QioNJ_NswDc3afXFjDqSztg51ODD7AASb-5uklrARZLQ3Dd7Egjb-UGjOquqP_GPbPKslZOnfpzzAR2OybO7oSBeEJi6RgNVnOEOxLbKFNQWE%3D&attredirects=1.

14 IIT Hyderabad: Raghavan, T. (2020, April 29). Telangana: Thousands of migrant workers protest at IIT-Hyderabad over lack of food, money. IndiaTV News. https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/telangana-migrant-workers-protest-iit-hyderabad-lack-of-food-money-612487.
IIT Madras: B.A, P. V. (2020, May 17). Migrants working for IIT-M projects not paid. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/migrants-working-for-iit-m-projects-not-paid/article31610353.ece.

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