Stating that it is an “open secret” that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s government had become complacent in its handling of the Covid-19 spread in the state, the Allahabad High Court has ordered all deaths due to the disease to be reported to a judicial officer every day.

The order, one of a number of directions from the High Court that noted the “chaotic situation” in the state’s big cities, comes amid the backdrop of reports suggesting that the state is under-testing and failing to capture the true number of cases and deaths due to the novel coronavirus.

Adityanath has insisted that there is no shortage of oxygen, medicines or hospital beds in the state, and that the situation is under control – a claim that has been contested by the High Court, as well as news reports from around Uttar Pradesh. Reports have also flagged the mismatch between official death figures reported by the state and those from the crematoriums in cities like Lucknow.

Nevertheless, the chief minister has asked officials to take action against those “spreading rumours” on the Covid-19 situation in Uttar Pradesh and “spoiling the atmosphere”. The Hindu reported on April 25 that the chief minister wanted such people to be booked under the National Security Act and their property seized.

‘Situation very chaotic’

Hearing a batch of public interest litigation petitions on Tuesday, the Allahabad High Court remarked that it was an “open secret” now that the state government had become complacent with the drop in the Covid-19 infections by the end of 2020 and focused more on other areas such as conducting panchayat elections. The court said it would not tolerate any public announcements claiming that the steps taken by the state were sufficient.

The court added:

“Had it been constantly vigilant, it would have prepared itself to face the onslaught of the pandemic in its second wave. Posterity would never forgive us if we remain oblivious to the real public health issues and let the people die for want of adequate health care”

The court, however, did not suspend or annul the panchayat elections, though it did send a notice to the state election commission following reports that 135 teachers, teaching assistants and others assigned to poll duty had died as a result of Covid-19.

The court also took a shot at the state government’s intolerance of criticism and said while the government alone could not fight the pandemic. It needed the cooperation of the people, the court said. It added that “those in power must shun the attitude of ‘my Way or no way’ and should welcome suggestions from all the quarters”.

The court observed that the situation in the big cities in Uttar Pradesh had become “very chaotic” due to the surge in Covid-19 cases.

“The ghost of corona is marching on the roads and streets of the major cities of the state and it can be anybody’s fate,” the court noted. Those who were resourceful would survive, it said, but the rest, as histories of past pandemics tell us, “may die for want of proper healthcare.”.

On April 19, the High Court had ordered lockdowns to be imposed in five major cities in the state. However, this order was stayed by the Supreme Court the next day, after the Uttar Pradesh government appealed it. In the meantime, the state government had imposed weekend lockdowns.

Remarking on this measure, the High Court on Tuesday observed that apart from a small drop in positive cases, nothing remarkable seemed to have been achieved on the public health front.

The court said:

“As the government in its wisdom has resolved to only two days weekend lockdown to break the chain and has further proceeded with some measures as a sequel to that but mere fact that number of positive cases as have been shown to have been reduced a little in numbers due two weekend lockdown days, nothing remarkable seems to have been achieved on the front of public health care to the satisfaction of the people.”

‘Matter of shame’

One of the important problems that came up for discussion during the proceedings on Tuesday was the shortage of oxygen. Parties before the High Court argued that there was scarcity of medical oxygen in private hospitals, which were asking patients to bring along their own oxygen cylinders if they wanted admission. Further, the parties complained that people had to queue up for it took almost 12 hours to get their cylinders refilled even as they faced harassment from local officials.

Responding to these submissions, the High Court said the state should ensure oxygen was available to the hospitals uninterupted.

“This [supply of oxygen] should be ensured at all cost so that no one should die for want of oxygen. If even after seven decades of our attaining freedom with so many heavy industries set up, we are not able to provide oxygen to our citizens, it’s a matter of shame. We further direct that despite rules regulations framed for transporting and disposal of industrial oxygen, it should be immediately diverted to the use of people making Medical Oxygen and its immediate uninterrupted supply for the said purpose be ensured.”

Judicial monitoring

The High Court added that the state government had come up with plans at a “late stage” and hoped it translated into action on the ground. However, the court did not leave it at that.

In an important direction, the court said the government has to report the number of Covid-19 deaths in both public and private hospitals to a judicial officer appointed by district judge in each district. “The government shall also ensure the correctness of the data forwarded to the officer concerned each day,” the bench said.

Further, the court said the officer in charge of the police station under which each crematorium falls should ensure that such deaths are recorded in the register and then communicated to the municipal body concerned.

The court went on to ask the advocate general to place before it in the next hearing data on several subjects, including total number of hospital beds and per day demand, total number of intensive care units and their occupancy, data on supply of oxygen and demand and exact number of Covid-19 deaths reported between April 19 and May 2.