IISER Mohali: PhD Scholar Dies of COVID-19, Students Allege ‘Administrative Negligence’

On May 2, a PhD student at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, died at a hospital close to the institute. The student, Mohammad Anwar Khursheed, had tested positive for COVID-19 on April 24. He worked under Dr Rajesh Ramachandran’s laboratory in the department of biological sciences.

According to an email sent by the director, J. Gowrishankar, Khursheed had been quarantining at the visitor hostel (also known as the VH) for the past week along with other infected students. He had been monitoring himself with an oximeter and had shown signs of improvement, said the director. “His fever had subsided and he was quite cheerful in his daily interactions, and he was on the path of full recovery, although a cough was persisting…” the email reads. According to the director, Khursheed stopped responding to phone calls and subsequently died of cardiac arrest caused by COVID-19. It, however, isn’t clear whether the student died in the VH or at a hospital.

Students, on the other hand, have alleged that the institute has been negligent towards their concerns for the past couple of months, and that the students who are currently lodged in the VH are in a state of panic as there is allegedly no one to monitor their health through the day and night.

“The news of the tragic demise of Anwar bhaiya has deeply saddened us. The administration might have lost one of their PhD students, we have lost one of our brothers and do not know who is next,” reads an email sent by a student.

No routine checkups, no medical supervision

According to students, there is only one medical officer, one pharmacist and one nurse at the institute’s health centre. The medical officer is currently under self isolation and there is no information on whether the institute has found someone to take over his duties. The health centre also doesn’t provide round-the-clock services and is only open during the office hours – 9 am to 1 pm, and then 4 pm to 7 pm – a faculty member told LiveWire. Hence, if a student requires medical support post office hours, he/she would either have to visit a nearby government hospital in the institute’s ambulance or wait for the doctor to come.

Students say that the health centre could have been easily converted into a COVID-19 ward and more medical officers could have been hired. “It has been more than a year since the pandemic began. I am saddened to say that the institute has not been prepared to face the crisis. They could have arranged COVID-19 beds in our gigantic healthcare centre, along with the availability of nurses to monitor the health of patients 24×7,” said a student representative in an email addressed to the administration.

The institute allegedly also hasn’t been conducting any mass RT-PCR tests despite repeated appeals by students since March. Students say the institute only started conducting tests recently, but the place where students’ samples are collected is quite close to the mess which means that potential COVID-19 patients can easily come in contact with healthy students.

The students have also raised objections over the priorities of the institution when it comes to spending. Last year, the institute installed CCTV cameras, biometric machines and other such surveillance devices. “The institute prioritised the installation of an extensive surveillance system in an almost empty campus while completely neglecting the development of a supporting medical facility, ” said another student in the email thread.

‘We are on our own’

The situation at the VH, too, students say, is quite worrisome. According to students who are in the VH, no medical officer from the institute has visited them. “They have been left there completely abandoned on an expectation that if there is something wrong, the patient will call and ask for help. The institute has not provided them any oximeters, thermometers, and essential medicines,” said a student in the email thread.

It must be noted that the director had said that Khursheed, the deceased, was monitoring himself with an oximeter. The students’ response, therefore, contradicts the director’s statement. In addition, even till date, students in quarantine are asking for oximeters on WhatsApp groups.

“There is no corresponding medical care or monitoring of these isolated cases as many students have reported apathy of the institute’s administration. The death of PhD scholar could have been averted had there been a medical team working day and night in the VH,” said a faculty member on the condition of anonymity, as the administration has taken strict action against those who have spoken against it in the past.

One student who had tested positive in March, and was in the VH, said that while they received calls every day from Punjab state government medical officials who would ask them about their health, the institute never reached out to them during that period.

“Even if direct contact was being intentionally avoided, what about any tele-consultation or counselling regarding the measures/medicines/dietary supplements that we needed to take. Had it been not for our labmates/friends or supervisor constantly checking on us, we were entirely on our own, locked down, with lot of victim blaming surrounding us,” added the student who had quarantined at the VH in March.

According to a faculty member, other IISERs in the country had started storing oxygen cylinders and other resources as soon as the COVID-19 cases started surging  but no such effort was made to do so at the Mohali campus.

Administration’s response

In response to LiveWire’s questions with respect to the alleged mishandling of the situation, the director said that IISER Mohali never asked its students to leave their hostel unlike other institutions. “On my part, it would have been the simplest decision to shut down the campus and have all students vacate the hostels but I have chosen not to do so in what I felt would be in their best interests, despite all the limitations here,” said the director.

The dean of students’ office, he said, has been trying their best to provide healthcare support to students in need – something which one of the students also attested to. He further said that all the students were informed of the institute’s “limitations” at the time when they were returning to the campus. “The campus would never be able to provide all Covid-related facilities and this was known and explained to all,” he said.

“The Visitor’s Hostel is intended merely to be equivalent to a home-care facility for those who are unable to go home. The administration has assumed that each student is aware of the limitations in which the institute is operating especially in the time of the pandemic wave (which are no different from the limitations that one would face even at home) when they choose to come or to remain in the campus,” he added.

Meanwhile, students who are in the VH, are mass mailing their concerns to the director, the medical officer and other officials in the administration.

“I cannot imagine going through this with no medical attention, no one checking in on me, and I cannot fathom how many of my college friends had gone through and are going through this on their own with little to no medical attention or reassurance,” said a student in the email thread who is currently quarantining at home. “They deserve so much better than this.”

Featured image credit: IISER official website