Disingenuous assertion

| Updated on July 21, 2021

The Centre should explain in Parliament the actions taken by the NTF   -  PTI

Instead of denying deaths due to lack of oxygen, the Centre should infuse confidence

The Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Bharti Pravin Pawar could have done better than to assert in Parliament on Tuesday that “no deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported by States/UTs”. This statement is at best technically true, in that no death would have been officially recorded as being due to lack of oxygen. But for those who were bereaved in the traumatic second wave, owing to oxygen supplies running out in hospitals, this remark would have touched a raw nerve. It is conceivable that an acknowledgement of such deaths could lead to demands for compensation. Yet, the Centre ought to have been less ham-handed while communicating in Parliament. For this lapse it is not just the Minister but the bureaucracy which framed the written reply which also needs to answer. The Centre’s response to the question of oxygen shortage could have been more considered in a context where questions have been raised about India’s Covid death count — by the courts and a number of global think tanks. The Health Ministry mandarins should ask themselves how ‘death due to lack of oxygen’ can become a distinct category when medical certification of the cause of death, according to a 2018 report on the subject by the Registrar General, is mentioned in just 21 per cent of the registered deaths in 35 States/UTs.

The Minister’s statement is dangerous too: a denial of the oxygen crisis could send the wrong message to both hospitals and the health bureaucracy. They may slacken their efforts to beef up infrastructure to gear up for another surge in cases, if they feel that they are not going to be held accountable. Indeed, for the lack of preparedness in the second wave the officialdom across States too must take the blame, not just the politicians. The Centre should instead explain in Parliament the action taken by it on the recommendations of the National Task Force set up by the Supreme Court in May this year.

It is with respect to not just oxygen availability but also that of ICU beds and ventilators that a clearer picture is needed. The NTF has spelt out a decentralised plan to identify oxygen availability at the micro level (based on an estimated requirement of 1.5 tonnes of oxygen per day in a 100-bed hospital with 25 per cent ICU beds), to be coordinated with a central database. As for private hospitals, the Bombay High Court has rightly underlined on May 6 that it is “imperative” for all such hospitals in Maharashtra to have their own oxygen plants. The Emergency Credit-Linked Guarantee Scheme extended to hospitals for setting up oxygen facilities should be made available for ventilators and ICU beds. Private hospitals should be held accountable for the physical infrastructure they provide, more so in view of the subsidies they receive and the astronomical sums that they charge from patients. Public hospitals must upgrade their facilities as well. But being in denial can be a bad way to start afresh.

Published on July 21, 2021

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