Citizens collect data as government obscures oxygen shortage deaths based on technicalities

06 August 2021
A volunteer attempts to give CPR to a patient at an oxygen camp in Ghaziabad on 1 May 2020. The CPR restarted his heart but he was rushed to a hospital as he was barely breathing.
Ishan Tankha
A volunteer attempts to give CPR to a patient at an oxygen camp in Ghaziabad on 1 May 2020. The CPR restarted his heart but he was rushed to a hospital as he was barely breathing.
Ishan Tankha

In the early hours of 24 April 2021, Erick Massey received a phone call from Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital. The person on the other end of the line told him that his 61-year-old mother had passed away due to respiratory failure. Delphin Massey had been admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit a week earlier, with severe symptoms of COVID-19. On the morning of her death, Erick went to the hospital to collect her body and noticed that the ICU had only two patients. It had been completely occupied earlier that week. “It was so strange, because this was the peak of the second wave, the hospitals were overflowing with patients,” Erick said. “I knew then something was amiss.” Within the next few hours, he discovered that his mother was one of 20 patients who died at the hospital after it ran out of liquid medical oxygen at 10 pm the previous night. The hospital tried to hook-up critically ill patients to oxygen cylinders but could not maintain the high flow of oxygen they needed to survive.

Erick and seven other people who lost family members at the Jaipur Golden Hospital that night have been fighting for three months, for justice and acknowledgement of the negligence that led to the deaths. In late April, this group of eight families filed a writ petition at the Delhi High Court. The petition asked for compensation and criminal proceedings against the hospital and the government authorities responsible for delivering oxygen to hospitals on time. “Nothing has happened yet,” Erick said, when I spoke to him on 23 July. “No one has even contacted us to see how we are doing or to apologise, let alone provide compensation. Going to the court with this matter is our only hope.” 

On 20 July, the union health ministry caused an uproar after it gave a statement in parliament on COVID-19 deaths due to oxygen shortages. In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha on “whether a large number of COVID-19 patients died on roads and hospitals due to acute shortage of oxygen in the second wave,” Bharat Pravin Pawar, the minister of state for health issued a written response that said, “no deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported by states/UTs.” In doing so, the government passed the blame for the lack of a systematic record of these deaths onto states and union territories. It also bypassed acknowledging such deaths despite overwhelming evidence in the news and on social media during the second wave.  

The lack of acknowledgment is what stung the eight petitioners of the Jaipur Golden Hospital case. “They are still in mourning and now the government refuses to acknowledge what caused the death of their family members,” Utsav Bains, the advocate representing the group, said. "They have trivialised their trauma. There is no dignity even in death." 

Reports of COVID-19 patients dying due to oxygen shortages had emerged from across the country by mid-April. A few days after the incident at Jaipur Golden Hospital, 12 patients, including a doctor died at Delhi’s Batra Hospital after the hospital ran out of oxygen in the middle of the day. Similar incidents were reported from PunjabMadhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka

Chahat Rana is a reporting fellow at The Caravan. 

Keywords: COVID-19 Deaths COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic oxygen Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ICMR Rajya Sabha Jan Swasthya Abhiyan
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