Public health experts on Wednesday derided the Centre for claiming that there have been no deaths due to lack of oxygen during the devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India, reported The Hindu. They added that the Centre’s response was rather bureaucratic and reflected its denial mode.

On Tuesday, Bharati Pravin Pawar, minister of state, Health and Family Welfare, said in the Rajya Sabha that no data was provided by states on deaths due to oxygen shortages, even as the crisis captured global attention. A day later, at least five states – Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Bihar – said that there have been no deaths due to shortage of the life-saving gas.

“They will be recorded as Covid deaths and a lack of oxygen will never be noted as an immediate cause,” epidemiologist Chandrakant Lahariya told The Hindu. “However, oxygen is necessary for treatment and the failure of the system to provide it has to be acknowledged. The Centre’s bureaucratic response is contrary to the public experience and a more empathetic view was required. Not doing so means we run the risk of repeating mistakes.”

All India Drug Action Network Covener Malini Aisola said it cannot be denied that oxygen shortages caused many deaths. “There is a reality that cannot be erased from public memory – of hospitals owners making daily appeals for oxygen supplies, to media and to courts, and sharing death tolls due to oxygen running out,” she told the newspaper.

During the peak of the second wave of the pandemic in April to May, shortages of oxygen had forced families and friends of patients to plead for help on social media. Hospitals sent out SOS messages and even approached courts as their oxygen stocks ran dangerously low.

Anant Bhan, researcher, Global Health, Bioethics and Health Policy said the Centre’s statement was appalling. “It is well documented that oxygen stock-outs were a trigger and a key underlying reason for several deaths,” he added. “We owe it to those who lost their lives to be transparent about what were proximate causes of these deaths, fix accountability, and work on ensuring that such a scenario never recurs in our health system.”

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Oxygen crisis

During the second wave of Covid-19, states experienced crippling shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, medical supplies and vaccines. At the peak of the wave in May, more than 4 lakh cases and thousands of deaths were being reported daily in the country.

On May 1, at least 12 patients died at Batra Hospital in Delhi after the facility fell short of oxygen. The hospital had confirmed that the deaths had taken place because of lack of oxygen.

On April 23, at least 20 patients under critical care died at Jaipur Golden Hospital in North West Delhi. The hospital cited a dip in oxygen pressure and approached the High Court to seek help in maintaining continuous supply.

In Karnataka’s Chamarajnagar, 24 patients died after a district hospital ran out of oxygen on May 2, though authorities insisted that not all deaths could be ascribed to the shortage.

The Allahabad High Court on May 4 said that deaths of patients in hospitals due to a lack of oxygen “is a criminal act and not less than a genocide” by authorities.

The country’s oxygen crisis could have been partly diffused had India utilised the past year to create localised solutions in the form of small-scale oxygen generation plants within hospitals on a war footing.

It takes just four to six weeks to install a Pressure Swing Adsorption oxygen generator at a hospital, said industry players and government officials. The average cost comes to just Rs 1.25 crore, based on the Centre’s outlay of Rs 201 crore for 162 oxygen plants.

But an investigation by showed that the central government took eight months to float a tender, and six months later, PSA oxygen plants were operational in only five of the 60 hospitals we called. Hours after the report was published, the health ministry admitted only 33 of the 162 PSA oxygen plants it had commissioned had been installed.