A minister’s claim that no deaths due to medical oxygen shortages have been reported by the states has sparked a firestorm, with criticism pouring in.
Bharati Pravin Pawar, a minister of state in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, told the Rajya Sabha that “health is a state subject. All states / UTs [union territories] report cases and deaths to the Union Health Ministry on a regular basis, according to detailed guidelines for reporting deaths. No deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states / UTs.” Pawar said that the “Government of India has supported the states and undertook a series of actions including provisioning medical oxygen, and other consumables to ensure clinical care of COVID-19 patients.”
Medical oxygen shortages precipitated some of the most harrowing scenes of the pandemic, with patients begging for medical oxygen – going so far as to plead via social media. As Health Issues India reported in May, amidst the second wave, the Allahabad High Court termed the deficit as “not less than a genocide.” Medical oxygen shortages have been in the crosshairs of the Delhi High Court and the Karnataka High Court – the former threatening contempt if the Centre did not provide oxygen for the national capital. According to Down to Earth, at least 619 COVID-19 patients have died due to medical oxygen shortages
Pawar’s remarks drew widespread criticism and were denounced by opposition politicians. Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain said “after a few days, they will soon say that Covid-19 was never there. If there were no deaths due to lack of oxygen, why were hospitals going to the High Court every day regarding shortages? This is completely false…lots of people died [of lack of oxygen]…the media was showing live that these deaths were happening, it was being printed in newspapers and it was true.”
Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut of Shiv Senha said “I am speechless. What would happen to families of those who lost their loved ones due to oxygen shortage after hearing this statement? A case should be filed against the central government. They are lying.” Former Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said “apart from shortage of medical oxygen, there is also shortage of sensitivity and truth.”
However, some states and union territories backed up the government. Bihar health minister Bangal Pandey, Tamil Nadu health secretary J. Radhakrishnan, Madhya Pradesh health minister Prabhuram Choudhary, Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, and Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope, among others, all concurred that no deaths due to medical oxygen shortages occurred in their respective states, with reactions varying from concurrence to incredulity.
In response, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sambit Patra said there “the government has said health is a state subject. It said it just collects the data sent by the state/UTs. It doesn’t generate the data. Rahul Gandhi and the Aam Aadmi Party [AAP, the ruling party in Delhi] are doing politics over COVID-19 deaths. The health ministry has replied in very categorical terms that health is [a] states’ subject.”