Millennium Post

Blame games

The Centre's claim in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday that no one died from oxygen shortages in states and Union Territories during the devastating second wave of COVID in India has sparked a political firestorm. The statement was made by Union Minister of State for Health & Family Welfare, Bharati Pravin Pawar who made the claim following a question by Congress leader KC Venugopal who asked if a large number of patients had died on roads and in hospitals due to a shortage of oxygen. Her specific statement, given in a written response, was that "No deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states/UTs." The health ministry went on to emphasise that the Centre had indeed taken major steps in supporting states and UTs when oxygen and other medical consumables were found to be in short supply during the second wave. The reply sparked absolute outrage on Indian social media where only months prior, families had posted desperate pleas for oxygen supplies and hospitals had sent out dire warnings of their supplies altogether running out. From doctors to family members, harrowing tales of mad rushes to secure oxygen supplies during the second wave are plentiful even if the official records supposedly have not taken note. Many patients did not survive this ordeal with daily reports of people passing away in hospitals, at homes and even in the streets. Doctors have noted that the certification for COVID-19 deaths indeed does not record a lack of oxygen being a reason for the patients' deaths. Health ministers from Jharkand and Delhi among others have moved to castigate the Centre with Satendra Jain saying "If no deaths occurred due to oxygen shortage, why did hospitals move high court one after another every day? Hospitals had been saying that oxygen shortage led to deaths. The media, too, flagged this issue daily." What has been sadly predictable is that issue has quickly devolved into a blame game between the Centre and the states. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra defended the initial government response by saying "The Central Government's reply was based on the figures provided by the states and the UTs. No state sent any data about patients dying due to oxygen shortage." Patra furthermore accused opposition parties like AAP of doing politics on the matter. AAP hit back by stating that it had planned an audit of all deaths caused due to oxygen shortages in the capital but the Centre apparently prevented the effort through the LG. Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia further claimed that the Centre was trying to hide its own complicity in the matter with the change in the oxygen distribution policy on April 13 leading to a "disaster." It should be noted that there is some confusion over the matter of who said what at the moment due to contradictions in statements by certain states. For instance, Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope affirmed the Centre's statement by saying that not a single patient had died in the state due to oxygen shortages as the state had effectively managed the supply. In contrast to this assertion, Rajya Sabha MP and senior Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut responded to the Centre's statement by saying "I am speechless. What would happen to families of those who lost their loved ones due to oxygen shortage after hearing this statement? A case should be filed against the central government. They are lying." Whether this ongoing debate over what was said and what are the facts about oxygen shortage is eventually sorted out or not, it is nevertheless a sad sight to see political bickering and blame games continue to be the norm during the pandemic. As may be recalled, this oxygen controversy is only the latest round in tiff between the Centre and the opposition ruled states. Vaccines were and are still a major battleground in this struggle to secure better optics. Much like the debate over who is to blame for vaccine shortages in India and the general chaos of the inoculation campaign, the debate over how many oxygen-shortage related deaths there were and who is to blame prevents any real learning from these crises so that they may be prevented. While it may be politically expedient to shift the blame elsewhere during a surge when thousands are dying, such moves hurt the overall effort to end the pandemic. Of course, political bickering getting in the way of fighting the pandemic is not a situation unique to India. In the US, bickering and partisan politics over everything from masking mandates to vaccinations are causing America to once again see a major spike in cases as politicians fail to agree on even the most basic facts of science in the middle of a global health emergency. Such is the nature of electoral politics perhaps but it is relevant to remember that in such games of reputation where the one making the most believable claims wins, the only real losers are the voters and the people who suffer the reality of this pandemic.

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