THE uproar caused by the Union Government’s recent statement in the Rajya Sabha, claiming that no deaths due to lack of oxygen were reported by states and union territories during the second Covid-19 wave, has prompted a much-needed reassessment of the contentious issue. The Centre has finally sought data from states and UTs on fatalities linked to oxygen shortage, particularly during April-May, when the second wave peaked and inflicted maximum damage in terms of lives lost. The demand for medical oxygen in the country had shot up to nearly 9,000 metric tonnes (MT) daily in the second wave, almost three times the peak requirement of 3,095 MT during the first one. The havoc wreaked by the paucity of the life-saving gas had been widely reported in the media. Several hospitals across the country had come under scrutiny, including New Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital for severe shortage of oxygen and Agra’s Paras Hospital for negligence. In the Jaipur Golden case, the Delhi Government had told the High Court, merely on the basis of a ‘preliminary’ probe report, that it was not certain whether oxygen shortage had led to the death of 21 Covid patients at the hospital.
Various states and UTs have been in the denial mode regarding oxygen-related deaths for obvious reasons: they want to avoid not only a public backlash but also the initiation of criminal proceedings against them on the charge of brazen abdication of responsibility. It’s apparent that the state governments have not done an exhaustive and definitive audit of the Covid deaths. The glaring discrepancy is underscored by the excess deaths, which are 5-10 times higher than the figures recorded in the corresponding period in normal years in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and some other states.
The authorities need to involve the NGOs, the media and members of the civil society in the exercise to find out how many patients died due to medical oxygen shortage. Their findings must be put on record and the accountability fixed accordingly. The Centre and the states have to work in tandem to ensure that the truth, no matter how inconvenient, is made public.