On July 20, Dr Bharati Pravin Pawar, minister of state in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said that no deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states and UTs. Health ministries of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar also joined in similar claims soon after. After all that this country had to undergo because of government inaction, these are not mere denials but diabolical expressions of apathy in a democracy.
Our team of independent researchers, lawyers, students and concerned citizens has been documenting oxygen deaths in hospitals all over the country. In our article published on July 7 in The Indian Express, we noted that at least 629 patients died due to oxygen shortage in 110 hospitals across the country between April 6 and May 19. As per our last update on July 21, the number stands at 682. We have not been able to include oxygen shortage deaths in home quarantined cases, of those who were refused admission in hospitals, those unable to get medical attention on time, and those discharged from hospitals in anticipation of oxygen shortages. This number is also an underestimate because we are relying on media reports only. But the number is surely not zero!
Denying what an exceptionally large number of people witnessed during the devastating second wave is not limited to the Union government. Authorities across levels have been complicit. One of the most enabling factors for such a gross denial is the absence of a definition of oxygen shortage deaths. Medical records, death summaries and autopsies do not note oxygen shortage as a cause of death either.
A four-member committee constituted on April 28 to examine the number of deaths due to the shortage of oxygen in hospitals in Delhi attributed these deaths to comorbidities. It relied on the fact that there was no mention of a shortage of oxygen in any of the case sheets. On May 27, the state government declared the formation of an oxygen death audit committee to give compensation to these families after a case-to-case basis assessment. Almost a month later, the state government reported that the Union government opposed the formation of such a committee.
Earlier in June, an RTI seeking responses on deaths owing to a shortage of oxygen ventilators, and beds was also met with a similar denial. The Delhi government rejected the application saying “no such data available.” Several premier hospitals across the country also denied oxygen shortage deaths in response to these queries.
The denials adhere to template responses. For instance, following the probe initiated for the deaths of five patients reported due to oxygen shortage in Meerut, the Chief Medical Officer Meerut, Akhilesh Mohan, said all these patients were already “comorbid and seriously unwell.” Lest we forget, this is the same state where a private hospital conducted a mock drill resulting in 22 patients gasping for breath, turning blue, and finally dying within a short timespan. In response, the district magistrate still claimed there was no death due to lack of oxygen on that day and that a probe would be conducted. The chief minister of the state had even declared earlier that there was no oxygen scarcity in any hospital.
In Goa, at least 83 people died of oxygen shortage in hospitals between May 11 and May 15 as per our compiled data. When the Bombay high court at Goa was hearing this matter, it said, “we have long passed the stage of determining whether patients are suffering from the lack of oxygen or not.” It also refused any judicial probe into the incidents at the Goa Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) saying that it would “be highly unjust and would have an effect of demoralising” on the hardworking frontline workers. It forgot that frontline workers care about doing their job well, and would have appreciated a regular supply of oxygen.
Chhattisgarh, one of the most well-prepared states during the oxygen crisis in India, tells a different story. To facilitate transparency and accountability, the state government is exploring options to conduct a public audit to track any such deaths due to oxygen shortage. The chief minister of the state said that the Union government’s claim about the unavailability of such data from the states and UTs is “misleading”. He said that states are required to submit the number of deaths on a day, deaths with and without comorbidities, and types of comorbidities, but no data on deaths due to oxygen shortage was ever asked for.
All through the second wave of the pandemic, several hospitals issued SOS requests on social media, media statements and more. Friends and families of patients were desperately looking for oxygen supplies from outside. Volunteers were at their wits end trying to source oxygen supplies for patient families everywhere. Social media feeds were flooded with calls for help and even live testimonies of people succumbing to death while watching the dwindling oxygen supply in the hospital. Courts were also hearing and responding to this crisis, so much so that on May 4, the Allahabad high court even called these incidents “a criminal act and not less than a genocide” by authorities. It was impossible to not be painfully aware of the oxygen shortage during the second wave.
On July 27, the Union government has asked states and UTs to share data on deaths due to the shortage of oxygen, and this is likely to be presented in the Parliament before the monsoon session ends. But, after that unsurprising but unfortunate denial earlier, we do not know if we can dare to get our hopes up about this data now. Official responses to avoidable public crises have often been evasive, unreliable and callous, especially during the pandemic. In the face of such non-transparency, independent public documentation is a mode of resistance. These official attempts to fool all the people all the time citing unavailability of data shall not remain unchallenged. The numbers on our publicly accessible database echo the story of the oxygen crisis that the public knows too well and shall not forget.
Sweta Dash is a researcher interested in public health, identification documents, and welfare rights. Aditi Priya is a Senior Research Associate at LEAD at Krea University and is also with Bahujan Economists. The writers are grateful to Aashish Gupta for his incisive comments.