As India starts to lift its stringent lockdown despite a surge in coronavirus cases, universities across the country announced dates for their final exams. Students voiced their concerns against this, as they worry about community transmission and the risk of COVID-19 at exam centres, but the most vocal against this are students pursuing medicine.
In India, getting a coveted medical degree is a long-drawn-out process that usually takes a minimum of five years for undergraduate students. This includes a year-long internship at a hospital, after which doctors can pursue a postgraduate course. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many medical students doing their internships or in their final year of pursuing their postgraduate degree emerged as forces on the frontline. This, to help an already overburdened healthcare system – especially in states like Maharashtra which overtook China’s national count after it crossed 85,000 cases on Sunday.
Now, these students may need to refocus their efforts on taking the national exams, a move that many have protested against using the hashtag #cancelmedicalexams online.
In a letter addressed to the Medical Council of India (MCI), around 900 final-year medical students from Maharashtra pleaded for exams to be postponed or cancelled on humanitarian grounds. This letter came soon after the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences (MUHS), the regulatory exam body for medical students in the state, declared the examination schedule for these undergraduate students.
“Making us show up for exams puts vulnerable students at risk of community transmission,” 28-year-old Nilesh Jadhav, the President of the Maharashtra Medical Student Welfare Association told VICE over the phone. “It also means students who left Maharashtra because of a high number of COVID cases now have to come back and risk infection just to take their exams.”
Jadhav believes that final-year medical students, especially those working on the frontlines, should be exempted from exams since they are applying all their textbook learnings already, in a high-pressure situation.
Students are especially concerned about a specific clause in the examination guidelines issued by the Medical Council of India (MCI). It states that despite taking precautions, if students do contract the coronavirus, the university cannot be held accountable.
The Maharashtra University of Health Sciences (MUHS) overlooked these concerns, arguing they will be enforcing sanitisation and social distancing guidelines issued by the MCI to reduce the risk at all exam centres. “Students are getting influenced by some universities within the country, as well as outside India, cancelling exams, and protesting,” an MUHS employee told VICE on the condition of anonymity. “But despite their protests, we haven’t gotten any alert from the council to postpone exams.”
Meanwhile, the letter signed by postgraduate students questioned the chasm between the Maharashtra chief minister's previous decision to cancel all university exams due to the pandemic, only for the state governor to move to reinstate them. This back and forth in decision making, they said in the letter, is hurting “the mental state of working doctors and hampering patient care.” The letter further stated, “We hence appeal to your humanity and ask that you cancel these exams and let us continue to man the frontlines of this battle unhindered by these pressures.” The Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors (MARD) is also demanding that if the exams aren’t pushed, all medical students should get at least 45 days to adequately prepare.
Academic pressures and intense exam culture in India have long been questioned, after they have often led to depression and high cases of student suicide.
India is currently reporting the third highest number of daily coronavirus cases in the world. Across the country, coronavirus cases crossed the 250,000 mark.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.