Amongst the defining images of the second wave of the pandemic were those of patients gasping for breath outside chaos-riddled hospitals. Innumerable people turned to social media to send out SOS messages for hospital beds and medical oxygen. States accused each other of blocking oxygen tankers at border crossings. On Tuesday, in a written reply to a question in Rajya Sabha, Union Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Bharati Pravin Pawar acknowledged this crisis, but in a manner that left much to be desired. Noting that the unprecedented surge in the demand for medical oxygen required the Centre’s intervention, the minister pointed out that states did not “specifically report” deaths due to lack of oxygen supply. Technically, she is right. There is no established protocol to link Covid deaths with depleted oxygen supplies. Hospital authorities, too, have been wary of making such connections. However, with the desperation caused by the runaway surge in Covid-19 cases easing in most parts of the country, it’s time to attempt answering difficult questions. A conversation must begin about the Covid problems, dilemmas and failures — and successes too — in a manner that could catalyse a truer depiction of what happened during the second wave. With its summary response on Tuesday, the Centre let go of the opportunity to initiate such a conversation.
The judiciary in at least three states, Karnataka, Goa and Delhi, has been more sensitive to the trauma of families who lost their loved ones to the oxygen crisis. Earlier this month, the Karnataka High Court ordered the state government to pay compensation to 13 such families. In the last week of April, the Delhi High Court directed the Arvind Kejriwal government to enumerate the oxygen-related toll at the city’s nursing homes and hospitals. Creating such a list would no doubt have required joining several dots — between accounts of relatives and records generated by doctors, hospital administrators and government agencies. It would have demanded an empathetic attitude to the constraints of hospitals from government investigators and reinvigorating channels of communication between the Centre and states, built during the first wave. This complicated process became even more fraught with the two governments bickering over the formation of the committee to look into claims by patients’ families and doctors, forcing the Delhi government to shelve its compensation plans.
It’s now evident that the failure to anticipate the second wave — as well as a lot of the devastation caused by the virus — owes much to the poverty of the country’s health information system. Much of what happened during this fateful period is in the realm of speculation. The government needs to shine the light, clear the air.