Acknowledge the brutality of the second wave
First we felt we were mere numbers; now we feel we are not even numbers,” Ruchika Gupta, told me, all the way from the Netherlands, from where she has mobilised a support group for families whose relatives died from a shortage of oxygen at Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital in April.
Like everyone else, Gupta, whose father was among the 21 patients who died within a few hours at the hospital because the oxygen supply to the intensive care unit (ICU) was stalled, is horrified at the callousness of the government’s response in Parliament. Passing the buck to the states and Union Territories, the health minister argued in the Rajya Sabha that no oxygen-related deaths had been officially reported to them.
Also Read | Centre, states row over O2 deaths in 2nd wave
Even a perfunctory acknowledgment of the pain and suffering of thousands of Indians was not made on the floor of the House. Instead, the central government took refuge behind a technicality. And while the Opposition attacked the Narendra Modi government for its lack of empathy, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) states have done no better in computing the deaths that took place in their hospitals from a shortage of oxygen.
At the very least, the government could have, in its reply in Parliament, displayed greater empathy in expressing compassion and regret over the lives lost. One cannot underscore enough that these were not natural deaths that took place during a pandemic; these deaths, running into the thousands, were a consequence of the failure of State institutions.
“Even the man on the street knows that there was an oxygen shortage in hospitals across India,” Dr SC Gupta of the Capital’s Batra Hospital tells me. Twelve people died in his hospital’s ICU, including a doctor colleague.
So how did oxygen deaths get erased from all official records?
There is a trail of evidence should anyone want to investigate where and what went wrong. Hospitals took to social media to plead for oxygen. There are videos of doctors breaking down on camera as they make plaintive appeals for oxygen supply. Doctors have chronicled the helplessness they felt while dealing with the shortfall and watching patients die.
And then, of course, there are those of us who have documented the countless tragedies on camera, chronicling not just the deaths that took place inside hospital wards in the absence of high-flow oxygen; but also out on the streets, in the backs of cars and auto-rickshaws, and even right at the closed gates of hospitals that had to turn away patients because they did not have the requisite supply of oxygen to take them in.
Every Indian who was refused a hospital bed because of the absence of oxygen should also be acknowledged and counted. Instead, governments, both states and central, have fallen back on what the discharge summaries and release papers in hospital records documented. And this is where the process of sanitising the evidence begins.
At Jaipur Golden Hospital, for example, the medical superintendent confirmed the shortage of oxygen in a brief statement to the media. But the paperwork provided to families, while releasing the bodies for cremations, only mentioned “respiratory failure,” enabling the hospital to claim in court that there was no oxygen shortage.
“With their silence on how these deaths were classified, doctors are breaking their Hippocratic oath,” says Prachi Awasthi, whose mother, Seema, was among those who died at the hospital when the oxygen ran out. “I have been robbed, first robbed of the chance at saving my mother’s life and now robbed of the chance to give her dignity and acknowledgment in death.”
Awasthi says she respects the sacrifices made by countless doctors at the Covid-19 frontline but believes, as fellow-sufferers and victims, it is time for them to speak out against the official invisibilisation of these deaths.
Shalu Kataria, a mother to two young children, was widowed by the oxygen shortage at the same hospital. She reminds me that hundreds of thousands of Indians mortgaged jewellery, sold land and took loans to pay expensive fees at private hospitals. She was no exception. But spending her life’s savings on medical expenses could not save her husband’s life. Now, with the family losing its only breadwinner, she is struggling to pay school fees for her children. She believes that the hospitals where oxygen shortage caused deaths must, at the very least, refund money to families.
Kataria’s children are petitioners in a court case that seeks justice from the judiciary. This is not about one hospital or one set of patients — but the larger health care infrastructure, the management of the second wave, and most crucially, perhaps, the need for acknowledgment of the deaths and losses for reasons that were so clear to all those who suffered and watched what was happening on the frontlines.
In the awful, unseemly battle between the BJP and the Opposition, citizens have quite literally been disenfranchised. As Awasthi remarks wryly, “Next, they will tell us the second wave was a figment of our imagination.”
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal