This open letter is a sincere and urgent appeal to the Minister of Health and Family Welfare (Nagaland), the Minister of Higher Education and Tribal Affairs (Nagaland), the Department of Secondary Education (Nagaland) and the stakeholders of all government and private educational institutions functioning in the state to kindly provide COVID-19 vaccine to students, teachers and non-teaching staff of higher educational institutions (HEIs) in Nagaland on a priority basis.
Our nation is facing an unprecedented crisis in dealing with the outbreak of the second wave of COVID-19 infections. Over the past week, we are flooded with disturbing news and harrowing images of the death and devastation caused by the highly virulent double-mutant strain of the COVID-19 virus. Over the span of barely a month and a half, daily new cases registered in India have multiplied exponentially from 14,989 cases on 2 March 2021 to 3,46,768 cases on 23 April 2021. Over 16.5 million people in India have been infected by the virus leading to over 1,90,000 deaths. Even in Nagaland, 94 people have lost their lives to the deadly illness till date.
In this context, it is imperative to contain the spread of the disease within the state of Nagaland given the limitations in medical infrastructure and the impending shortage of medical oxygen and lifesaving drugs such as remdesivir. Nevertheless, higher education institutions (HEIs) (from Class IX and above), both in the government and in the private sector, have continued to function in Nagaland providing essential academic services to students in the state.
We should, at this point, recognize the fact that there is a high risk that HEIs may become nodal points for the transmission of COVID-19 within the state. Both staff and teachers are under high risk of contracting the illness given the present circumstances. High school, college and university campuses are spaces where large numbers of individuals from various areas and backgrounds congregate. Most students and staff stay off-campus and have to use public transportation to commute to campus. Even after following the SOP protocols, teachers have to meet anywhere between 100-300 students on a daily basis. Within the classrooms, teachers have to shout over the incessant drone of ceiling fans addressing vast classrooms where students are seated in a dispersed fashion as per SOP protocols. Several research papers have pointed out how shouting and singing leads to a greater degree of aerosolization- the process through which saliva is broken down into smaller microscopic droplets – which lead to increased transmission of COVID-19 through air. Teachers themselves are prone to getting infected by the virus and may become primary transmitters as they have to take classes for multiple batches of students in the same day. In this regard, teachers at HEIs should be considered in par with frontline workers taking into account the risk involved in their profession.
The most effective way to stop COVID-19 contagion has proven to be vaccination. Current studies show that less than 0.03-0.04 percent of those who were inoculated with Covaxin and Covishield had subsequently been infected with COVID-19. It is therefore my humble request that COVID-19 vaccines should be provided on a priority basis to the staff and students of HEIs from 1 May 2021 when the next phase of vaccination begins. Additionally, I sincerely request that provisions should also be made for random sampling for RAT (Rapid Antigen Tests) in all educational institutions to enhance better tracking of COVID-19 incidence at the grassroot level. I request that the vaccines be distributed through the respective institutions, whether government or private, for free or at subsidized rates. I wish to point out that many private HEIs in other states have already provided mandatory free vaccinations for all teaching staff over the past months.
There are multiple benefits to this approach. Firstly, this would help limit the spread of the virus within educational institutions which would otherwise prove to be highly volatile nodal points of transmission. HEIs should suspend offline classes until the vaccines are provided to the staff and students of the institutions. Secondly, providing vaccines at HEIs will also ensure a wider demographic distribution of the vaccine during the second phase, allowing perhaps one person in every household to be vaccinated. Thirdly, such a decentralized approach will also relieve the workload of primary health centres, hospitals and other vaccination centres which might face overcrowding of people seeking the vaccine. Finally, if the first dose of the vaccine is provided to staff and students in May, the second dose can be taken during the semester break in June. This would allow safer reopening of HEIs for the upcoming academic year in the month of August.
We are all currently living in the fear of an impending total lockdown, but none more so than teachers. This largely has to do with their experiences during the previous lockdown. When educational institutions in Nagaland were closed on 18 March 2020, teachers were faced with an unprecedented crisis. We had to quickly adapt to a new mode of online education, something which was done to a surprising degree of success. However, many teachers across private institutes in the state were suddenly faced with delayed and reduced payment of salary. Many are still working under reduced wages despite the fact that full fees are collected from the students. Such a state of financial uncertainty wreaked havoc in the lives of teachers, leading to delayed payment of rents, EMIs, loans, school/college fees of children, medical bills of dependents, etc. I earnestly request the authorities that such unfortunate events should not be allowed to happen again. Once offline classes are suspended, we live in the fear that our hard-earned wages will be held back. What if one of us falls ill and needs immediate medical attention? What if one or more members of our family fall prey to this deadly virus? I kindly beseech all authorities and stakeholders to ensure that the salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff should be paid in full throughout the duration of the lockdown, if any. If wages are to be reduced or delayed, this should only be done only following proper consultation with and after providing adequate notice to the staff. This is a sincere and earnest request from the teaching community who have strived relentlessly through these uncertain times to make sure that the educational sector in Nagaland had not been adversely affected by the present crisis. I write with sincere hope that these suggestions will be taken into your kind and astute consideration.
Let us stay safe and stay united through these troubled times!
Dr. Achuth A.
Department of English
St. Joseph University, Dimapur
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