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'No deaths due to oxygen shortage' claim stuns India

Opposition threatens privilege notice against junior health minister over 'insensitive' statement

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: July 21, 2021 09:25 AM GMT

Updated: July 21, 2021 11:32 AM GMT

'No deaths due to oxygen shortage' claim stuns India

Oxygen cylinders stored at a government hospital in Kolkata amid rising Covid-19 cases on June 1. (Photo: AFP)

A huge controversy has erupted over the Indian government's handling of the Covid-19 crisis after Junior Health Minister Bharati Pawar told parliament that there had been no deaths during the second wave in April-May due to a lack of medical oxygen.

"All states report cases and deaths to the Union Health Ministry on a regular basis. However, no deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by the states or [centrally administered] union territories," she informed the upper house of parliament, Rajya Sabha, in a written reply on July 20.

The statement generated a huge row. Congress lawmaker K.C. Venugopal said the party will move a privilege motion against Pawar for her comments.

Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain said on July 21 that Pawar's statement “added insult to injury” to families who had lost their near and dear.

"I am speechless. What would have happened to the families of those who lost their loved ones to oxygen shortages after hearing this statement? A case should be filed against the government," Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut said.  

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi flayed the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for ignoring a parliamentary committee's report which had recommended making adequate arrangements for oxygen because there was no arrangement for transporting oxygen.

At least 30 people died in Andhra Pradesh during the second Covid-19 wave due to lack of oxygen

Slamming the government, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said it was not only the shortage of oxygen but even “sensitivity” has been found wanting.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury tweeted: "Shameful. ‘No deaths due to lack of oxygen’ Modi government in parliament. Governance of deceit — Modi style."

The government’s response in Rajya Sabha, however, stated that due to the unprecedented surge in demand for medical oxygen during the second wave, demand peaked at nearly 9,000 metric tonnes compared to 3,095 during the first wave.

Pawar said the central government "had to step in to facilitate" equitable distribution of oxygen later to states.

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However, Chhattisgarh Health Minister T.S. Singhdeo, a senior Congress leader, claimed that "there was no death in our state due to oxygen shortage."

Political opponents and other observers find the government’s response "insensitive" and even contradictory to its own stand earlier.

At least 30 people died in Andhra Pradesh during the second Covid-19 wave due to lack of oxygen, Telugu Desam Party leader K. Pattabhiram said. 

"The government of India itself had charted a new plan to import 50,000 metric tonnes of medical oxygen to cater to the rising demand. Oxygen shortage became a major issue during the peak season in April-May and now they are saying something else," said analyst Tushar Bhadra in PM Modi's constituency of Varanasi.

One reason for not mentioning oxygen shortage-related deaths is perhaps because “other medical reasons” including Covid or cardiac arrest are generally mentioned on death certificates.  

At least 12 patients, including a doctor, died when a prominent hospital ran out of oxygen

In fact, in April-May, there were repeated reports in the media that hospitals in the national capital continued to send desperate messages for emergency oxygen supplies.

"At least 12 patients, including a doctor, died when a prominent hospital ran out of oxygen," reported the BBC on its website on May 2.

There were also reports that several big hospitals in and around Delhi "are relying on daily oxygen supplies but they are not getting any."

In fact, by April 27, when Covid-19 infections touched the 160,000 mark daily, it was reported that a number of states "reported shortages of medical oxygen for a growing pool of patients."

In the first week of May, it was reported by media that at least 12 people died due to oxygen shortages in Delhi, 11 in Andhra Pradesh and five in a single hospital in Uttar Pradesh.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have tried to defend Pawar, saying that nowhere has it been stated that no one died due to an oxygen shortage. The government reply had been "honest" and said no state has reported deaths due to oxygen shortages, they said.

In fact, a cursory glance at media reports and data shows that April 23-24 saw the highest oxygen shortage leading to deaths in a single day or two. There were reports of 60 such deaths across hospitals.

All so-called talks about Covid management seem such hogwash

Socialist leader Akshay Yadav said the manner in which the government is continuing to deny the facts and real cause of deaths only exposes its lack of seriousness in dealing with the problem.

"All so-called talks about Covid management seem such hogwash," he said, referring to Modi's meeting with a group of senior parliamentarians on the Covid crisis.

The meeting on July 20 was even boycotted by parties including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Congress and Akali Dal.

Bombay High Court on July 21 said it is the state’s duty to protect the right to life, which will be violated if people die due to shortages of medical oxygen. The court was hearing a plea on issues related to Covid-19 management in Goa.

The court had said: “Article 21 of the constitution gives everyone the right to life and the Supreme Court has said that the state will have to create circumstances so that this right to life is protected. It is the duty of the state to protect it and this will be completely violated if people die due to lack of oxygen.”

The court had noted that while Goa Medical College has about 700 beds to treat Covid-19 patients, nearly 1,000 patients were admitted, so "clearly there was a shortage."

Similarly, an empowered panel in Karnataka reported that at least 36 inpatients had died in various hospitals to the non-availability of oxygen. 

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