Home / Opinion / Columns /  The valour of teachers who did not retreat from covid’s frontline

My friend of 40 years, he has this wry and relaxed air about him, a deceptive veil over the supercharged engine of action inside. He is a senior officer in one of the country’s smaller states. His competence and incorruptibility are equally well known in the state. So, most of the time, he is in roles that are used for ‘sidelining’, as it is called. In the wide variation of approaches to the pandemic that I have observed across states, his has been a particularly egregious one.

I asked him why he was cooling his heels when the country, including his state, is in the throes of a near-apocalypse. He explained it to me this way: “Our states’ policy on the pandemic is to manage the optics and have no policy." Even my blood, which has witnessed more than a few ludicrous of examples of governance, boiled at this explanation. He concluded his explanation by saying, “Yaar, samjhaa karo, everybody loves a good pandemic." Despite the irrelevance of his current role, the good man that he is, he is doing everything possible to informally support junior officers in various districts as they battle the scourge. These officers have largely been abandoned by the state, left to their own devices.

Nothing could have communicated the abdication and corruption of governance in that state more effectively than my friend’s riff on P. Sainath’s unflinching probe of the innards of poverty in India, in his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought. If you have not read it, do so. One can admire or detest Sainath’s work. Your sentiment is likely to be the result of how close you are to positions of power in our society. His authentic on-the-ground reporting has been unsparing of those with power and all governments over the decades past, both in the states and at the Centre.

Unsurprisingly, it was the blunt reporting of Sainath and team at the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) on 10, 21 and 30 May that cast a spotlight on the deaths of government schoolteachers in Uttar Pradesh from covid after they had been commandeered into poll duty for panchayat elections held in April and May.

Let me quote from one of the PARI pieces: “The number of school teachers who have died of Covid-19 after compulsory duty in Uttar Pradesh’s panchayat polls in the month of April is now 1,621—including 1,181 men and 440 women—according to the updated list of the Uttar Pradesh Shikshak Mahasangh (teachers’ federation) and its affiliated unions." This death count has probably grown by now.

The largest teacher federation of the state painstakingly gathered a list of teachers who have passed away; this information forms the basis of their report. The state has not disputed this list nor any of the other facts of that story. If the report is inaccurate, it must do so and disclose the correct picture. Such a tragedy could have only resulted from extreme callousness—deploying teachers in situations of high risk, without adequate protection and safety.

Government school teachers have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle the pandemic. Both voluntarily and because some states have included them in their systematic efforts. Neither is surprising. There is a government primary school in almost every habitation across the country. The public servant closest to every community is the teacher. Along with the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs), and panchayat representatives, teachers have formed the frontline teams during the pandemic, taking responsibility for raising awareness, surveillance and monitoring, organizing panchayat- level quarantines and isolation centres, and more.

Though fatalities among teachers across the country have occurred, they haven’t been observed to have taken place at a higher rate than that of the rest of the population. This is probably because adequate precautions have been taken, including ensuring that most interactions with other people happen out in the open; this minimizes the risk of infection. Many states have also prioritized the vaccination of teachers.

The case of Uttar Pradesh seems to be one of a series of negligent actions, and that too, not in order to tackle the pandemic, but to hold panchayat elections in the middle of its tsunami-like second wave. When history records this pandemic and its times, this tragic episode will find place in the inglorious list of horrendous misgovernance.

I don’t know of anyone who has not lost someone near and dear in the second wave. Understandably, this widespread toll has fuelled deep misgivings of being ‘out at the frontline’; even among those who must be. Manifold more people across the board—from civil society to public servants—have chosen to stay back in the safe precincts of their homes during the second wave. And that has delivered a debilitating blow to frontline work.

Who am I to judge these people? But the quiet question of a young woman in a distant village in central India, waging a truly lonely battle, continues to ring in my ears: “Aaj jab sabse zyadaa zaroorat hai, toh aap sab kahaan hain? Main toh bilkul akeli hoon." Today, when the need is the greatest, where are all of you? I am truly all alone.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation

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