"Happiness is no longer part of my life," said Kumari Neha. The 30-year-old was tragically widowed when her husband Deepak Anand, a government school teacher succumbed to Covid-19 while being treated at Government Medical College and Hospital at Bettiah, the headquarters of Bihar's West Champaran district.
It hasn't even been two years since they got married and he leaves behind a one-year-old child.
He is among the 54 government teachers claimed by the virus in East and West Champaran districts since the start of the second wave in April.
The state education department has initiated an exercise to determine the state-wide toll. "The compilation of data from other districts is being done. It is still at an introductory level," said a senior government functionary, refusing to be identified.
"In April and May 2021 alone, 29 of our teachers died," informed Awdesh Kumar Singh, District Education Officer (DEO) of East Champaran. West Champaran has witnessed 25 deaths, according to DEO Binod Kumar Vimal.
The districts are now staring at a huge loss to their basic education workforce when schools eventually reopen.
While online classes were happening in an erratic manner, teachers had been struggling with finances either due to delayed salaries or increasing expenditures. As a result, they were often unable to pay for the treatments.
Bihar Panchayat Nagar Prarambhik Shikshak Sangh (BPNPSS), a teacher's association in East Champaran, believes that timely salaries could have prevented some deaths.
The delay in salaries is typical and a delay of two months is quite common for both regular and contractual teachers.
The association's president, Amardeep Kumar, told 101Reporters, "Most of them are contractual teachers who died owing to a financial crunch. They were deprived of their salaries for four months, and hence they did not opt for the best medical services.
"As per the allotment received, the salary was paid for November, December (2020) and January (2021) -- about 80 per cent of salary was received for the latter. Teachers were without payments between February and May 2021."
Stranded in the middle of a crisis
Praful Kumar Mishra, District Programme Officer (Establishment) of the education department in East Champaran, confirmed the delay in salaries. "We process the payment as soon as the allotment arrives. The pending salaries have been paid towards the end of May," he said.
Teachers have confirmed that they have now received their salaries but for many families, it is too late. "Due to lack of money, my husband ignored going to the doctor and preferred to take medicines prescribed by the chemist," said Savita Kumari, 42, about Ramesh Sah, a government teacher in West Champaran.
"But his health deteriorated suddenly and he had to be admitted to GMCH on May 1. He passed away the following day before he could even be tested," she says.
The mounting death toll has expedited the demand for relief. Premchand (he goes by one name only), State Spokesperson and Media In-Charge of Bihar Rajya Prathamik Shikshak Sangh, said, "The number of deaths due to Covid-19 is high. We are compiling a list from all the districts. A demand for immediate compensation and jobs for dependents of each of the deceased has been made."
Sanjay Kumar, Additional Chief Secretary of the State Education Department, had announced in May that dependents of all the teachers who died due to Covid-19 are entitled to claim an ex-gratia of Rs 4 lakh. However, when asked how many people have received the amount so far, the district officials chose to remain tight-lipped.
BNPSS president Kumar, said families from East Champaran are still knocking at the doors of government offices to claim the promised ex-gratia relief and compassionate appointment. "Paperwork is progressing at a snail's pace," he added.
Death and confusion
The grieving families have to jump through bureaucratic hoops for the ex-gratia and it has been especially hard to get proper death certificates. "An RT-PCR or antigen report is mandatory for declaration of a COVID-related death," according to Dr Srikant Dubey, Deputy Superintendent of GMCH in Bettiah. But in many cases, these tests were not conducted.
The family of Ajay Gupta, a contract teacher posted at Englishiya in West Champaran, is yet to come to terms with his death on May 13. His wife, Vibha Gupta -- a mother to two -- is too deep in mourning to deal with paperwork. The responsibility has fallen on Gupta's father, Rameshwar Prasad, who said that they are yet to receive his son's death certificate.
The family have not been able to procure one since the RT-PCR or antigen test, required for the document, was not done. This death too occurred at the GMCH at Bettiah. At that time, the family was in a panic over his deteriorating health and didn't have the time to get an RT-PCR test done.
"We left everything for the doctors to decide. For now, we have submitted all the documents to the government, but cannot guess what the investigation report will say."
Rajesh* (name changed) was a teacher who was being treated at GMCH before his death. A family member, who wished to remain anonymous, told 101Reporters that the CT scan results are available and Remdesivir was administered to the patient. "Why is the death certificate being denied when all the treatments were provided to the patient as per Covid-19 protocol?" they ask.