On April 8, Delhi High Court advocate Amit Bansal was admitted to Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital to be treated for Covid-19. It took nearly weeks for Bansal, 54, to get better. But on April 23, the hospital called his family and told them that Bansal had suffered a cardiac arrest.

When they got to the hospital, the family found that Bansal’s oxygen levels were dipping. “In front of me, his oxygen levels dropped,” said his relative Archit Aggarwal.

Aggarwal recalled that the hospital staff had been on edge that day. Paramilitary personnel stood outside the building guarding an oxygen tanker, he said. Attendants of patients started to panic. Bansal was among the 20 patients that died that day in Jaipur Golden Hospital’s Covid critical care unit as the hospital reported a dip in oxygen pressure at the facility.

Our stocks depleted,” the hospital’s medical superintendent, Dr DK Baluja, told The Indian Express. “After a delay of seven hours, we got 1,000 litres of oxygen. But by then, patients in critical care were affected.”

After this, hospital officials approached the Delhi High Court to ask for help to overcome the recurring oxygen shortage.

Despite this, the minister of state for health, Bharati Pravin Pawar said in the Rajya Sabha on July 20 that “no deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported” by states and Union Territories. The statement was a response to a question about the number of deaths that had taken place in the Covid-19 second wave due to oxygen shortages.

The Delhi government responded strongly, declaring that the statement is untrue: the Centre had not asked the the health department to provide information on this, officials told Scroll.in.

Health officials from other states also said that the Centre had not asked them for such data. “As per the information I have, we were not asked for any such data,” said Niraj Kumar Bansod, the director of health services in Chhattisgarh.

Contrary to the minister’s claims, independent researchers say that at least 619 deaths occurred across the country because of oxygen shortages. Out of this, 59 deaths took place in hospitals in the national capital, they say.

Contrasting claims

Between April and May, several states including Delhi witnessed a tsunami of Covid-19 infections. Reports flooded the media of patients running from pillar to post in search of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders as several hospitals reported shortages. Some hospitals in the national capital even approached the courts for help as their oxygen supplies ran out.

But after the Union health ministry’s response in Parliament, contrasting claims by the Centre and Delhi government about deaths caused a shortfall in oxygen supplies have spilled over.

On Wednesday, the Bharatiya Janata Party highlighted an audit report by the Aam Aadmi Party-run Delhi government ruling out that any deaths in the state had been caused by oxygen shortages. This report was attached to an affidavit submitted by the Delhi government to the Delhi High Court on May 3.

The audit committee to ascertain the number of deaths due to oxygen shortages had been set up by the Delhi government on April 28 on the directions of the Delhi High.

The four-member committee had three medical professions from Delhi government-run hospitals and one member from the Delhi government’s Directorate General of Health Services. However, the committee only scrutinised the case records of Jaipur Golden Hospital since the facility claimed that over 20 patients had died there because of a lack of oxygen.

The committee’s report, which was submitted on May 2, found that no oxygen shortages had been recorded. “In view of the natural virulent course of the disease and lack of any evidence suggestive of oxygen shortage in the case records, the committee was of the opinion that shortage of oxygen as the cause of death could not be ascertained,” the report states.

The report adds that there was no mention of oxygen shortage in any of the case sheets of the patients who died and that oxygen was supplied continuously, according to the records they had.

Neither the report nor the affidavit submitted by the Delhi government recorded any dissenting remarks or questions over the findings of the committee. Officials from the Delhi government have been unable to explain why the committee’s report went unchallenged despite the hospital’s complaints of low oxygen supply.

Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia on Wednesday claimed that the state was unable to give the Centre any data on deaths because the Centre had not allowed it to form a separate committee to conduct an audit.

In May, the Delhi government had sought permission from the Lieutenant Governor, whose opinion is necessary before action can be taken on a broad range of matters, to form a six-member panel to look into deaths that were caused due to oxygen shortages in hospitals in the capital. On May 27, it issued at order saying that it would pay families of the dead compensation of Rs 5 lakh.

The Lieutenant Governor rejected the proposal because the Supreme Court on May 8 had already mandated another panel to audit oxygen requirements, The Print reported.

However, the mandate of this committee was different. It was set up by the apex court to “ensure a measure of accountability for the proper distribution of oxygen supplies made available by the Union Government to the States/UTs”.

On June 22, this committee had claimed that Delhi had inflated its oxygen requirement by four times, according to its report attached to the Union health ministry’s affidavit to the Supreme Court. But this claim was a gross exaggeration, as a report in Scroll.in had explained. A member of the committee had pointed out that calculations were itself inaccurate and an underestimate of Delhi’s actual requirements.

Leaving aside the wranglings about these committees, the Delhi government’s inability to provide data on Covid-19 deaths resulting from a lack of oxygen is still a little difficult to understand because it had in April already mandated a panel to “audit daily each and every death in which Covid-19 test is positive”.

To public health activists, this controversy underscores doubts about the credibility of such committees. “The critical question we need to ask is who and where do we assign liability to in such cases,” said Jeevika Shiv, a lawyer and a volunteer at the Covid Citizen Action Group.

She asked: “How is it that so many people died at the same time in these hospitals if not for oxygen shortages? Was there any oversight by the government and how independent are these committees?”

‘Government is lying’

While the political sparring continues, families of Covid-19 patients said they are still pained when they recall the ordeal they faced through the second wave of infections.

For advocate Amit Bansal’s relatives, the response of the health ministry was proof that the Centre was yet to take stock of how thousands of patients were set adrift during the second wave. “This means that they do not know anything about the ground reality,” said Archit Aggarwal.

Aggarwal said that the government had to be transparent about how the lack of oxygen and an unreliable supply hurt many people. “Those who had to die have died but if this is the attitude [of the government] then there will be a repeat,” he said. “Things will not improve if they are hiding or dodging the matter.”

Other families who lost their relatives due to oxygen shortages said that the Centre’s claim amounted to an erasure of what they had experienced. “The government is clearly lying,” said Amit Bharadwaj, the relative of 62-year old Prakash Dutt Dwivedi. Dwivedi had been admitted to Batra Hospital, a private facility, for the treatment of Covid-19 on April 26.

He died a week later on May 1 along with 12 other patients after the hospital ran out of oxygen. “Everybody knows the truth,” said Bharadwaj.

The shortages of oxygen were reported in other states as well.

In Karnataka’s Chamarajnagar, 23 patients died after a district hospital ran out of oxygen on May 2, though authorities insist not all deaths can be ascribed to the shortage. In Goa, as many as 74 patients died in the state medical college over four days in May after oxygen supplies were reported to have dipped.

On April 17, at least six patients died at the government medical college at Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh. The families of these patients alleged that the hospital ran out of oxygen that day.

Among them was Ram Kumar Jaiswal who watched his brother Raj Kumar, 28, gasping for breath in the ICU unit during a commotion in the hospital late that night. “Tadap raha tha,” said Ram Kumar. He was struggling. Ram Kumar said he saw six other people die in the ICU unit that night.

Since then, Ram Kumar has struggled for months to receive any kind of compensation from the state government. But his brother’s death remains etched in his memory. “All of them died because the oxygen ran out, I saw my brother struggle [to breathe] with my own eyes,” recalled Ram Kumar. “What do these ministers know?”