Indians have expressed shock and anger after a young health minister told parliament that no Covid deaths have been reported due to oxygen shortages.
Hospitals across the country ran out of oxygen in April and May in a deadly second wave – daily reports were of people dying of shortages.
But the government said on Tuesday that “no deaths from lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states.”
India has reported more than 418,000 Covid deaths to date.
And more than half of those happened after April 16, when Covid cases started to rise sharply.
Dr Gautam Singh, who runs a 50-bed hospital in Delhi, told the BBC there was a severe oxygen shortage in April and May. “We are running oxygen every hour. We almost lost patients. Somehow we begged and borrowed to save our patients. But I know of other hospitals that have lost patients in because of the shortage. “
India’s health infrastructure began to collapse as the demand for hospital beds, oxygen and medicine increased rapidly. Social media has been inundated with desperate pleas for help from families and doctors as patients run out of steam. The trauma was visible day in and day out and made headlines around the world.
Thus, the government’s statement that it had no data on oxygen-related deaths angered and shocked Indians.
“Health is a matter of state. Detailed guidelines for the reporting of deaths have been issued by the central ministry of health in all states and union territories,” said Bharati Pawar, deputy minister of health and Family Welfare in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
She added that they had not received any reports of the deaths from the oxygen shortage.
Ms Pawar was responding to a question posed by opposition MP KC Venugopal to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of parliament) about ‘whether a large number of Covid patients have died on the roads and hospitals due to a severe shortage oxygen during the second wave ”?
People seemed furious and hurt that the government was relying on a technicality – that states had not reported any deaths “specifically” from lack of oxygen – and failed to recognize the horrific reality that so many families face.
The BBC had reported extensively on the oxygen shortage in hospitals, including major cities like the capital Delhi. At a major Delhi hospital, at least 12 patients, including a doctor, died of oxygen failure on May 1.
Many hospitals depended on daily supplies. It was worse in small hospitals that didn’t have storage tanks and had to rely on large cylinders. Images of people lining up to fill oxygen cylinders quickly became a familiar sight.
“It is a battle that we wage every day,” Dr Gautam Singh told the BBC at the time. “Half of my hospital staff are on the road with bottles to fill them up every day, going from place to place.”
The Indian government has already been criticized for major gaps in its Covid data – experts say the number of cases and deaths are both severely underreported.