India must not play down the COVID-19 tragedy, as that would hurt public confidence
A touchy topic for the Centre and States has been the counting of the dead from COVID-19. In 2020, as the pandemic ravaged Europe and the U.S., Health Ministry officials would incessantly argue that India had better managed the pandemic because its deaths per million of population were comparatively lower. While factually true, it was always apparent that the argument was specious given the size, demographic difference and India’s per capita access to quality health care. But the ferocious second wave, in April and May, characterised by the very visible scenario of hospitals being overrun, and the sick gasping for a very basic necessity of medical oxygen, revealed a spike in excess deaths, compared to the normal death rate in previous years. Even though independent databases, such as the CRS and State records, show large spikes in deaths, with no other explicable cause other than COVID-19, the Centre continues to be in denial of the mortal scale of the pandemic. Tuesday’s statement by Bharati Pravin Pawar, Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, in the Rajya Sabha, that there were no “specific reports” of deaths from States due to lack of oxygen, led Congress leader K.C. Venugopal, to say the party will move a privilege motion against her.
Indeed, it is the absolute lack of empathy or acknowledgement of the lived experience of many who have watched their closest suffer and die for want of medical oxygen that makes the Minister’s statement appalling. It is technically true that while no death certificate or medical record would note a COVID-19 patient’s demise as due to “lack of oxygen”, and therefore not causative, the very fact that the Centre moved in April-May to repurpose all its industrial oxygen capacity into producing and transporting medical grade oxygen is itself evidence that the inability to access it must be considered as a probable cause of death. In the early days of the pandemic, a COVID-positive test was necessary to count as a COVID-19 death until the ICMR said it was not always required. It is bewildering why India — with the third highest number of COVID-19 deaths globally, whose oxygen crisis was international news, and mortality figures considered an under-count — sees value in denying oxygen-shortage casualties. Counter-productively, it diminishes public faith in the health-care system. India’s leadership sought to convey the impression that the country had conquered the pandemic and — chastened by the second wave — is now advising abundant caution, with the public messaging focused on the possibility of a third wave, and how nearly a third of the population continues to be vulnerable as per the ICMR’s fourth serology survey. But diminishing the tragedy, especially in Parliament and in its official records, only further erodes the Government’s credibility.