By Yanis Iqbal
There is a general air of malaise at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Approximately 43 professors – both serving and retired – have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The rate of deaths is dizzying – 18 serving teachers have died in merely 20 days. In addition, an undisclosed number of non-teaching staff have also died of the infection. Perturbed by these macabre conditions, Vice-Chancellor Tariq Mansoor wrote a letter on May 9, 2021, asking the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to study the Covid-19 variant circulating in the campus.
He requested Professor Balram Bhargava, Director General of ICMR, “to instruct the concerned section/department of the ICMR to perform analysis of Covid-19 samples sent from our lab to investigate for any particular viral variants of Covid-19 virus circulating in Aligarh, which may be giving rise to greater severity of the disease, so that we may consider other epidemiological links and measures to control the same as per advice and recommendations.”
The health crisis being faced by AMU is a dire one. One prominent facet of this crisis is oxygen shortage. On April 28, 2021, the Vice-Chancellor stated: “There is a reported shortage of oxygen in the JNMCH [Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital] due to the increase in its demand with the sudden rush of an unprecedented number of patients after the current surge.” In response to this shortage, the university authorities sanctioned an amount of Rs 1.41 core to install an oxygen generation plant. In order to tackle the general lack of medical capabilities, a number of other measures have been taken.
First, 40 beds have been added in the isolation ward in the Outpatient Department (OPD) Hall. Some additional oxygenated beds have been made available in the orthopedics ward of the trauma centre for the staff. Second, all consultants have been advised to personally visit their patients admitted in the Trauma Centre on daily basis. This will ensure transparency in the treatment of patients.
Third, in order to meet the shortage of workforce, 50% of the Junior Residents, Nursing, and Medical Attendance Scheme (MTS) staff of the Dental College and Tibbiya College has been transferred to the Trauma Centre with effect from April 24, 2021. Fourth, the Vice-Chancellor has written a letter to the Secretary Health and University Grants Commission (UGC) for the approval of additional funds to enhance facilities at JNMCH. It has also been requested that the budget should be released on a quarterly basis for its proper utilization instead of releasing the funds at the end of the financial year.
While the immediate initiatives undertaken by the university are welcome, we need to reflect on the deeper causes behind the structural paralysis of AMU’s medical infrastructure. First, it is no secret that since the last few years, the university has been experiencing a financial crunch. The union government has regularly delayed payments to the university, thus creating unnecessary imbalances in the latter’s operations. These bottlenecks have had a direct bearing on AMU’s pandemic response.
Until the announcement of a financial package in the beginning of 2021, AMU had been facing a major threat as funds meant for salaries for junior and senior resident doctors of its hospital had been blocked for several months. In April 2020, the availability of protective gear for junior doctors at JNMCH reached a critical point when they threatened to boycott work if necessary equipment was not made available immediately. While the doctors alleged that there was acute shortage of protective gear, a spokesperson of the hospital said that the concerns of the junior doctors were “misplaced” as adequate supply of protective equipment was in the pipeline.
Second, interruptions in the flow of funds have undermined the ability of JNMCH to handle peak loads. With the no adequate financial support, certain portions of the veritable heath system of the university have had to reluctantly accept the theory of optimization. This theory does not permit the system to tackle surges, since in normal times it would mean that the hospitals would have surplus capacity. Cash-strapped hospitals are not going to voluntarily develop any surplus beds or surplus ventilators. These developments have contributed to the pandemic crisis.
Searching for Alternatives
Albert Camus once said, “Where there is no hope, one must invent hope.” We should maintain the same attitude with regard to AMU. Instead of inundating ourselves with grief and devoting all our attention to policies of panic-stricken emergency engineering, we should reflect on the over-all state of the university and examine how the pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to correct the institution’s trajectory.
In other words, this is a period of critical introspection wherein creative ways should be explored to maintain the role of AMU as a beacon of hope in a neoliberal dystopia. In opposition to dominant currents, AMU has steadfastly clung to a de-commercialized mode of administration based on the fundamental needs of the people. While systemic forces have unleashed a predatory proclivity for profit-making – thus detaching institutions from concrete life – AMU has preserved an ecosystem firmly rooted in the thickness of social relations. Today, we need to double down on these commitments.
In a situation characterized by declining state support, AMU needs to find alternative ways of financing. If this is not done, the university will continue to witness the consistent attrition of its long-standing independence and ideological uniqueness. We have already seen how the curtailment of independence has led to internal havoc and weakened the vigor of the university’s health architecture. Therefore, there is an indispensable need to stabilize AMU’s economic chassis.
One potential method of doing this is to seek assistance from the university’s vast alumni network. Unlike most other universities – which usually don’t have a strong alumni network – AMU has a vibrant alumni community in India and abroad willing to help the university in constructive ways. If these repositories of goodwill are utilized in a methodical manner, AMU will be able to bolster its foundations of being a staunchly autonomous university and carry forward the mission of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.