Only Punjab flagged deaths due to the shortage of oxygen during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India earlier this year, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told Parliament on Friday.

Mandaviya was responding to the Opposition’s claims that the Centre did not reveal the actual number of deaths during the second wave.

The health minister said that between July 26 and 30, the Centre wrote to the states thrice, seeking their Covid-19 death figures.

“On August 21, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Assam, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh responded to our request,” Mandaviya said. “Only Punjab said in writing that there had been four suspected deaths [due to oxygen shortage] that we are investigating.”

Separately, in a written response, Mandaviya said the last email had been sent to the states on November 29. “Only Punjab and Arunachal Pradesh have responded,” he said. “Punjab has emailed that four suspected deaths have occurred due to lack of oxygen in one hospital in Amritsar district.”

During the second wave in April-May, several hospitals across states had reported deaths due to oxygen shortage. In Delhi, at least 12 patients had died at a private facility – Batra Hospital – 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 the capital’s Jaipur Golden Hospital.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district, several patients had died on the day a private hospital shut off oxygen supply as part of a mock drill. In a purported video, the owner of the hospital had been heard saying that the mock drill was done to check who would survive if the hospital’s oxygen supply ran out.

In Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar, 24 patients had died after a district hospital ran out of oxygen on May 2, though authorities insist not all deaths can be ascribed to the shortage.

The Centre has, on previous occasions also, sought to downplay the oxygen crisis that hit India during the devastating second wave of Covid-19. The situation was so grave that hospitals sent out SOS messages about their diminishing oxygen stocks and the attendants of patients waited in long queues in the heat to get oxygen cylinders filled. Courts also took cognisance of the crisis.

During the Monsoon Session of the Parliament in July, the Centre had claimed that states did not specifically report any deaths due to oxygen shortages during the second wave. However, after facing criticism for its denial, it sought data about the deaths from the states.

In August, the Delhi government claimed that it did not receive any letter from the Centre asking for details on deaths due to oxygen shortage in the national Capital. But a day later, the Union minister tweeted a copy of the letter that the Centre had sent to Delhi.

Politics around oxygen

While speaking in the Lok Sabha on Friday, the Union health minister said that some leaders did not stop politics even when the country was struggling with oxygen shortages.

The minister added that the Centre had told the states that deaths due to the shortage of oxygen must be reported. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said at a chief ministers’ meeting that there was no need to hide the number of deaths,” Mandaviya said.

Mandaviya claimed that the Centre had made all the possible efforts to try and ensure that oxygen was available in adequate quantity and when the demand rose during the second wave, the supply was augmented.