India's government facing backlash over oxygen shortage denial

Outcry as country records its highest daily coronavirus death toll in a month

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India recorded its highest daily death toll in a month on Wednesday amid a nationwide outcry over the government's denial of an oxygen crisis.

The government added nearly 3,500 previously unreported coronavirus fatalities from western Maharashtra state to the daily tally, pushing India’s total to more than 418,000 deaths.

A steady stream of deaths and fresh infection cases continue in the nation, which was battered by a brutal pandemic wave in April and May. In Kerala and Maharashtra, cases are still on the rise and the test positivity rate remains over 10.

Maharashtra, including its capital Mumbai, is one of the worst affected states, with 6.2 million confirmed cases and more than 130,000 deaths during the pandemic.

India’s Health Ministry on Wednesday reported another 42,000 confirmed cases and nearly 4,000 deaths, taking the country’s caseload to 31 million, the second highest after the US.

Several Indian states have reviewed their death toll in the past, blaming missing documentation or administrative errors.

Experts cite scarce resources for death anomalies in the country, where only 22 per cent of nearly 10 million annual deaths are medically certified.

The reconciled figures come a day after a Washington-based think-tank, the Centre for Global Development, said that the excess death toll in India could be as high as 4.9 million.

The report, co-authored by India's former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, studied deaths from the beginning of the pandemic to June this year after the second wave ebbed from a record high of 414,000 cases per day on May 6.

"What is tragically clear is that too many people, in the millions rather than hundreds of thousands, may have died," the report said, estimating between 3.4 to 4.9 million deaths.

Experts have accused India of undercounting the dead.

More than 22 million confirmed infections and 250,000 deaths were registered in the third wave, with the public left scrambling to find hospital beds, lifesaving drugs and medical oxygen.

Some died on the pavements outside hospitals and many more inside their homes as they gasped for breath amid desperate pleas by families for help.

Crematoriums and graveyards across the country were filled with victims and hundreds of dead bodies of suspected Covid-19 patients were seen floating in the Ganges in May.

The report comes amid a raging outcry over Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s claim that no person died due to the shortage of oxygen in the country during the second wave.

India’s newly appointed junior health minister, Bharati Pravin Pawar, told Parliament on Tuesday that they had no figures on people who died due to shortage of oxygen, sparking outrage.

When asked by an opposition parliamentarian whether a large number of Covid patients died on roads and hospitals due to an acute shortage of oxygen in the second wave, Ms Pawara said: "No deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states and [union territories].”

Opposition parties, healthcare workers and survivors accused the government of lacking empathy.

Several states, including Delhi, had reported severe shortage of oxygen supplies in April and May after infection cases overwhelmed hospitals, forcing courts to order Mr Modi’s government to ensure uninterrupted oxygen supplies.

Dozens of countries sent medical aid to India, including oxygen cylinders to overcome the shortages as black marketers forced desperate patients to pay 100 times the usual price for oxygen.

“Everybody knows that there was a shortage of oxygen and people died due to that,” Dr SCL Gupta, medical director of Batra Hospitals, told The National.

At least 12 patients, including a colleague of Dr Gupta, died in a single day at the hospital after it ran out of oxygen supplies in April. Similar shortages were reported at hospitals in Goa, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka states.

Shyam Singh, whose brother-in-law died, allegedly in a shortage, at a hospital in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, said: “This government is lying.”

His 35-year-old relative was one of 17 coronavirus patients whose families claim died in 24 hours after oxygen shortages at the Brightstar Hospital.

“At least 17 people died in one night because the hospital ran out of oxygen and they are saying no one died of a shortage? It is very disturbing,” Mr Singh told The National.

Updated: November 01, 2021, 10:20 AM