Virus wave claims brightest minds in Indian universities

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A relative holds a photo of Dr Jibraeil, assistant professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, who died of COVID-19, in Aligarh, India on Saturday, June 12, 2021. In just one month, the page The official Facebook of Aligarh Muslim The university, one of the largest in India, has published around two dozen obituaries of its teachers, all lost due to the pandemic.  Across the country, the deaths of educators in the devastating wave of April and May shook students and staff in tight-knit university communities.  (AP Photo / Manoj Aligadi)

A relative holds a photo of Dr Jibraeil, assistant professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, who died of COVID-19, in Aligarh, India on Saturday, June 12, 2021. In just one month, the page The official Facebook of Aligarh Muslim The university, one of the largest in India, has published around two dozen obituaries of its teachers, all lost due to the pandemic. Across the country, the deaths of educators in the devastating wave of April and May shook students and staff in tight-knit university communities. (AP Photo / Manoj Aligadi)

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Sajad Hassan sat by his professor’s bedside in the hospital for three nights, chatting most of the time as his friend and mentor breathed through an oxygen mask and battled a suspected COVID-19 infection.

Both were convinced the 48-year-old academic would return home soon, until a coronavirus test came back positive and doctors ordered him to move to the isolation room – known to many in the world. ‘university hospital as the “dark room” because so few who entered came out alive.

“I could visibly see the fear in his eyes,” Hassan recalls.

Two days later, Dr Jibraeil was dead, one of nearly 50 professors and non-teaching staff at AMU, one of India’s top universities, who fell victim to the coronavirus while crossing the country in April and May. The AMU tragedy has been repeated across India as schools have suffered similar blows to their teachers, and the loss of their knowledge – and in many cases their friendship and guidance – has been devastating. for the university community.

“The virus has taken away our brightest minds,” said Shafey Kidwai, spokesperson for AMU or Aligarh Muslim University.

One of the oldest universities in India, AMU has produced generations of politicians, lawyers and academics. The university has been the seat of modern education for many Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and an intellectual cradle for the community. It was primarily founded to educate Indian Muslims, who today make up around 14% of the country’s population.

Over the past two months, local newspapers and the university’s Facebook page have been filled with obituaries of its professors – all lost due to the pandemic.

The zoologist “touched the lives of a generation of his students”. The physician was “an exceptional clinician, teacher and human being, who has guided many generations.” The psychologist was a “dynamic presence” and was “known for conducting high quality research”.

And Jibraeil, an assistant professor of history who went by only one name, was a “dedicated teacher, who loved his job and cared deeply for the students.”

At the height of the wave, Kidwai recalled seeing colleagues taken in ambulances to the hospital; some later returned to be buried in the century-old campus cemetery, which lacked space and fresh graves had to be dug over the old ones.

“It was deeply distressing,” he said.

There is no official tally of the number of professors who died during the pandemic, but many top Indian universities have reported situations similar to AMU’s. The University of Delhi in the Indian capital and affiliated colleges have lost 35 teachers. At Jamia Millia Islamia, another university in the capital, four professors and 15 staff members have fallen due to the virus.

The pandemic has been equally devastating for government teachers in some areas. More than 1,600 have died in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s 28 states, where many were reportedly infected after being forced to staff polling stations over their objections for an election held during the outbreak.

Academics were only a small part of the horrific scenes that unfolded across India in April and May as its healthcare system crumbled under a sudden and severe spike in cases that caught the government off guard .

Some died in the ambulances. Those who made it to the hospital were often breathless amid dramatic shortages of oxygen and ventilators. Crematoriums burned bodies day and night, sometimes in pyres outside their overwhelmed facilities.

More than 180,000 have died in those two months, nearly half of the 383,490 confirmed deaths in India since the start of the pandemic.

As the tide has eased in recent weeks, AMU officials and students have started to assess the large number of casualties.

They say the deaths of educators left a void and their grief was exacerbated by the isolation induced by the pandemic, with commemorations postponed indefinitely or held virtually.

“We want to celebrate the lives of those we have lost, but the whole university is empty,” AMU’s Kidwai said. “Without it, I think the students will feel a lingering sense of loss. “

With universities still closed, the situation has left many students in the dark.

On the same day Jibraeil died, AMU doctoral student Shah Mehvish learned that her thesis supervisor, Sajid Ali Khan, 63, had also died from an infection.

The 28-year-old, one of Khan’s six doctoral students. Fourth-year clinical psychology research students said she cried and felt numb upon hearing of her death. “Her loss left a void in my heart that is difficult to fill,” she said.

Now weeks later, she contemplates the challenge of completing her research without Khan’s tutelage, which has left her “anxious.”

“The cooperative relationship between teacher and researcher takes a lot of time and effort,” she said. “I don’t know how long it would take to familiarize myself with a new guide.”

For Hassan, who was also preparing for his doctorate, Jibraeil was more than his former history teacher.

The two had developed a close friendship since they first met around five years ago, when Hassan was an undergraduate student and Jibraeil was his teacher. Over the years, the professor had gone out of his way to help Hassan, loaning him books, guiding him in his research into modern Indian history, and even helping him with a financial loan.

In ordinary times, the funeral of a popular professor like Jibraeil would have brought hundreds to the cemetery right on the university campus.

But due to the pandemic lockdown, people have been banned from such a gathering, including Jibraeil’s wife, Falak Naaz, and her two young children.

After the obligatory Muslim funeral prayers attended by dozens of friends and colleagues, all were led out of the cemetery before the burial.

Desperate to pay his final respects, Hassan volunteered to help with the burial, helping lower Jibraeil’s body to his grave.

“I owed it to him,” said Hassan.

Alone in the cemetery on a hot summer evening, with only the Muslim cleric who gave the last rites and the three doctors who had accompanied the body from the hospital morgue, Hassan said his last farewells.

“I have never seen such a silent and lonely funeral,” said Hassan.



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