Rajat Sharma

Why did state govts say ‘no one died due to lack of oxygen’?

AKBToday I want to write on a sensitive issue. Several lakhs of people in India died of Covid during the second wave of pandemic that swept through the country in the months of April and May. Most of them died due to lack of oxygen, hospital beds and ICU ventilators. On Tuesday, the Centre told Parliament in a written reply that “no death due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states/UTs”. This caused a furore in social media and political circles. The central govt said this because information sent by state governments said “no one died of lack of oxygen?”

Were the images of people gasping for breath due to lack of oxygen fake? Were the images of thousands of people waiting in queues for refill of oxygen cylinders imaginary? Were the videos of doctors and hospital owners weeping with folded hands seeking oxygen supply mere drama? Was the video of a son rushing out to get cylinder leaving his mother gasping for breath inside car fake? Was the image of a lady trying to pass on her breath to her dying husband on his mouth imaginary? Were the long queues of ambulance outside hospitals with patients gasping for breath inside fake? Were all these images and videos fake and illusory?

If the images were authentic then why did the state governments tell a lie?
There can be not an iota of doubt that there was acute scarcity of oxygen in hospitals across India during April and May. The Centre marshalled its Navy and Air Force, Railway and steel plants, to transport oxygen to the nook and corners of the country. Oxygen Express trains were run by the Railways transporting millions of tonnes of oxygen to different cities. You may have seen those videos on TV and multi-media. Then why did the government tell Parliament with confidence that “no death due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states/UTs”?

I asked my reporters in Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad, Meerut, Bhopal, Indore, Agra, Patna, Jaipur, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Mohali, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar to speak to doctors of those hospitals, who had given distress calls for oxygen supply. They spoke to doctors who had said that Covid patients have died due to lack of oxygen supply. These doctors were specifically asked whether what they had said at that time was a lie, and if what whatever they had then said was true, did their hospitals share these informations, with the state governments?

Our reporters spoke to the state health ministers of Delhi, Rajasthan, UP, MP, Gujarat, Goa, Maharashtra, Bihar and Chhattisgarh and asked how many Covid patients died due to lack of oxygen, and what information did the state governments share with the Centre.

My first question was to the Centre. We asked BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra why such a reply was given. He said, the reply was a compilation of all information collected from state governments. The question should be posed to state governments, he said. He pointed out the first part of the written reply: “Although health is a state subject, all states report cases and deaths to the ministry on a regular basis, as per guidelines for reporting deaths.”

Sambit Patra gave the example of Delhi, where thousands of people queued for refill of their oxygen cylinders and there were images of patients gasping for breath in Delhi hospitals. The Supreme Court had to intervene and the Centre ordered immediate supply of medical oxygen to Delhi, and yet, not a single death due to lack of oxygen was reported by Delhi government. Patra pointed out that several dozen patients had died in Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital, and yet not one statistic of death due to lack of oxygen figured in the Delhi government’s records.

Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said, his government did not have any data on deaths due to lack of oxygen because the Centre did not let his government form an audit committee to look into the cause of deaths of Covid patients. He said, the Lt. Governor disbanded the audit committee. Sisodia alleged, the Centre wants to hide the truth about mismanagement, and does not want the figures to come out.

All such accusations and counter accusations are of a political nature, they are obfuscating and are meant to wriggle out of accountability. Both AAP and BJP leaders had in April and May seen images of thousands of patients gasping for oxygen, and their relatives standing in queues for refilling cylinders.

Our reporters went to hospitals and spoke to doctors. 22 patients died due to lack of oxygen supply on April 23 night in Delhi’s Jaipur Golden hospital, and the hospital’s medical director had confirmed the same in a live interview on India TV the next day. Does it require an audit committee for the Delhi government to tell the Centre about these deaths? On Wednesday, Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain said there were many deaths of patients due to lack of oxygen, but it was his government which had told the Delhi High Court on affidavit that there was no death due to lack of oxygen.

India TV reporter Gonika Arora met relatives of those who died due to lack of oxygen on April 23 night. These families showed medical death certificates in which the cause of death was shown as lung failure or heart failure, but there was no mention of lack of oxygen supply. When our reporter asked the director of Jaipur Golden Hospital, he said, heart, lungs and other organs of the body fail when there is lack of oxygen, but since the primary cause of death is written in the medical certificates, it is never written why the heart or the lungs failed to work, that is why lack of oxygen was not mentioned as the cause of death.

Not a single medical death report issued by Delhi hospitals mentioned lack of oxygen as the primary reason. On May 1, twelve patients including a doctor, died in Delhi’s Batra Hospital due to lack of oxygen. The hospital medical director S.C.L. Gupta was weeping in front of the camera while narrating the death of his colleague. I still remember that video which soon went viral. Yet, officially no certificate was issued about lack of oxygen being the primary cause of death.

There was acute shortage of medical oxygen in Delhi hospitals during April and May. Even Delhi government admitted it while filing petitions in High Court and Supreme Court. Cases of death of patients due to lack of oxygen in Batra and Jaipur Golden hospitals are in public domain. I still remember those tweets from Max and Shanti Mukund hospitals seeking urgent supply of oxygen. There are thousands of tweets and WhatsApp messages from Delhites desperately seeking oxygen for their near and dear ones.

Does a government require an audit committee to check whether people died due to lack of oxygen or not? Why did Delhi government tell the high court that there was no death due to lack of oxygen? People have seen hundreds of relatives weeping over the death of their near and dear ones, many of them expressed sympathy, almost all of them said people were dying due to lack of oxygen, and yet, neither the hospitals, nor Delhi government, gave it in writing that Covid patients died due to lack of oxygen. Why? Because nobody wants to carry the weight of dead bodies on shoulders. This happened in other states too.

Five Covid patients died on April 26 in Vedanta Hospital in Thane, and their relatives staged a violent protest. There was the viral image of a Covid patient collapsing to death, due to lack of oxygen, outside a Covid centre in Nashik, Maharashtra. The video and images were seen by millions of people and yet Maharashtra government is unwilling to admit that any Covid patient died due to lack of oxygen in the state. The irony is that ruling Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut said he was speechless on reading the Centre’s written reply. Raut said, families who lost their near and dear ones due to lack of oxygen should file cases against the government. Ironically, it is his party’s coalition government which had sent the information to the Centre that nobody died due to lack of oxygen in Maharashtra.

Similarly, thousands of Covid patients died due to lack of oxygen in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and yet, these state governments told the Centre nobody died due to lack of oxygen. On Wednesday, Rajasthan health minister Raghu Sharma admitted that thousands had died due to lack of oxygen in his state, but when he was asked why his department sent the information to the Centre that nobody died due to lack of oxygen, Sharma laughed it off by saying “aankadon ke maaya jaal me kya fansna, jo haqeeqat hai, who sabke saamne hai” (why entangle yourself in statistics, the truth is there for all to see).

Hundreds of Covid patients died due to lack of oxygen in Uttar Pradesh too. In Lucknow, Moradabad, Meerut, and Agra, thousands stood in queues throughout the night to get their oxygen cylinders refilled and hundreds of patients died due to lack of oxygen in hospitals. There was this famous video of a woman trying to give life to her husband by blowing air into his mouth unsuccessfully in Agra. At least 21 Covid patients died due to lack of oxygen in three top hospitals of Meerut on April 26, while seven members of a family died due to lack of oxygen in Bakshi Ka Talao in Lucknow. But in the official records of UP government, there is not a single death due to lack of oxygen till date. How did this miracle happen?

Our reporter spoke to UP health minister Jai Pratap Singh. His reply was interesting. He said, “our government carried out audit of each Covid death, but since there was no option to mention cause of death in the CoWin portal developed by the Centre, it will be incorrect to say that the UP government hid the truth.”

In Bihar, ruled by JD(U)-BJP coalition government, more than 8,500 people died of Covid from January till May, but the state government is unwilling to admit that any of them died due to lack of oxygen. Bihar health minister Mangal Pandey gave an interesting reply to India TV, “Demand for oxygen rose 14 times during April and May in hospitals, but not a single patient died due to lack of oxygen. We supplied adequate quantity of oxygen to hospitals. There could be instances of patients trying to reach hospitals but died on the way, but our government does not have any official information about their deaths.” How can anybody try to convince Mangal Pandey that it was his department’s responsibility to ensure that those gasping for oxygen are provided beds in hospitals?

The saddest part is that most of the state health ministers gave similar replies. Madhya Pradesh health minister Prabhuram Chaudhary claimed that adequate oxygen was supplied to the hospitals. When our reporter pointed out that hundreds of patients were in need of oxygen outside hospitals, he replied, “I have no information about what happened outside hospitals, I can only say this much that nobody died due to lack of oxygen inside hospitals.”

Whatever the Centre said in Parliament may be misinformation, but why is the Congress leadership not speaking about what their own health ministers are saying? Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra made acerbic comments in their tweets over the death due to oxygen issue. This is not a Congress vs BJP issue, nor is it a Centre vs State issue. There may be some states where there was no scarcity of medical oxygen, but the same cannot be said about all.

I was sad and shocked over the manner in which politicians commented on this issue. Rahul Gandhi mocked the Centre by tweeting, “There was not only lack of oxygen, there was also lack of sensitivity and truth”. I agree it is a lie to say that nobody died due to lack of oxygen, but top Congress leaders should ask their state governments in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan why they said nobody died due to lack of oxygen. Were their own health ministers lying or being insensitive? Congress is part of the Shiv Sena-NCP coalition government in Maharashtra. The state government filed an affidavit in Bombay High Court to claim that no one died due to lack of oxygen in the state. The AAP government in Delhi did the same.

The saddest part is that this is how our system works. Whether the government belongs to BJP, or Congress, or AAP or some other party, the information that appears on paper is quite different from ground realities. One thing is mentioned on paper, and a completely different thing comes out of politicians’ tongues. The hospitals wrote in medical death certificates that death was due to lung or heart failure. The hospitals did not mention lack of oxygen as the primary cause. The state governments took this info with their eyes shut. When the Centre sought info, the state governments dished out these fake info to Delhi, and Parliament was told that there was no death due to loss of oxygen.

Just imagine. Who in India does not know that a large number of people breathed their last while gasping for oxygen? Everybody knows the truth, the pain of death was felt by all, there was sensitivity among people over such deaths, but our system is such that it does not allow the ugly truth to come out. But the people of India, the final arbiters of the nation’s destiny, know what is the truth. They have seen with their own eyes how people died while gasping for breath.

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