A similar interpretation had risen from the Union Health Ministry last week, which told the Rajya Sabha that no deaths due to the lack of medical oxygen were reported by the states and UTs during the second wave. This narrative was seconded by the health ministers of several states across the nation, including those in Opposition-ruled states.
Tamil Nadu’s health minister Ma Subramaniam, as well as health ministers in states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, as well as the Chief Ministers of Gujarat and Goa, have gone on to echo the Centre’s findings. Asked about individuals who succumbed to the virus on roads and hospitals in the absence of oxygen, Bharati Pravin Pawar, the Minister of State for Health said that as health is a state subject, states and UTs are responsible for collecting data on COVID-19 deaths. The one thing the government has admitted to is that there was an unprecedented spike in demand for medical oxygen during the second wave, peaking at 9,000 MT per day as compared to 3,095 MT per day during the first wave.
In the fashion of RK Laxman’s The Common Man, we are all gobsmacked by the incredulity of these declarations. But for the lakhs of people, whose lives have been altered by the pandemic, such insensitive rhetoric is akin to adding insult over the injury. The surge in infections during the second wave in April and May brought people down to their knees as they scurried across districts in search of oxygen cylinders and coughed up exorbitant sums to procure the same. Several hospitals had approached the courts, while in Goa, the healthcare institutions themselves admitted to the death of patients due to oxygen shortage.
The Centre has been lambasted by members of the Opposition too. Delhi’s Deputy CM even remarked how the Kejriwal government attempted to form an inquiry committee to audit all the deaths that had taken place due to the oxygen shortage. However, this initiative was scuttled by the Centre through the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. Similar criticisms came from senior Shiv Sena leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut who demanded justice for the kin of those who died due to the lapses of the Centre.
Contrarian narratives, especially when provided by the government, weaken the faith that citizens vest with their rulers. This year, reports about India’s actual death toll from COVID-19 were splashed across dailies. The spectre of doubt cast on our methodologies of tracking and recording COVID deaths had become a case study in what not to do when reporting pandemic casualties. To add to this, the government putting up resistance by dismissing any research that does not paint India in a favourable light has become emblematic of its culture of denial.
Last week, former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian, spoke in the aftermath of the release of a paper co-authored by him, that sheds light on the true toll of the pandemic in India. The paper released by the Washington-based Center for Global Development, pegs India’s death toll between January 2020 and June 2021 at 3.4 to 3.7 mn. One of the estimates suggests COVID-19 deaths may alone have hit 4 mn, which is ten times the official count– 4.20 lakh deaths.
It might be unrealistic for the Centre to examine and respond to every piece of research that comes its way. But in a moment as critical as this, the least that it can do is admit that there have been shortcomings in its responses and that it could have acted more transparently. All the efforts aimed at rebuilding an economy and a nation battered by the pandemic might not bear the desired results if non-negotiables such as transparency and forthrightness are kept out of the loop.