An avoidable tragedy: Scores of patients dying because they couldn’t get oxygen in time points to a failure of governance

A most visible reminder of India’s governance failure on the heels of the second wave of Covid-19 is the constant flow of news about shortage of medical oxygen. Cases of patients dying after hospitals run out of oxygen are being reported from across the country. In the latest tragedy, 24 patients are reported to have died in Karnataka over the weekend after hospitals ran out of oxygen. While the state government says it is examining the exact cause of deaths, what is not in doubt is that there is an oxygen crunch.

The underlying causes of the problem became evident when the Supreme Court recently took up a suo motu writ petition in the backdrop of this humanitarian crisis. In India, steel plants are major suppliers of oxygen. As they are unevenly distributed, allocation of oxygen is decided by the Centre, with states responsible for organising transport. Problems begin here. Oxygen requirement of a state changes constantly depending on the case load. Political incentives to fudge data can’t make this task simple. Moreover, some states may simply not be in a position to lift their supply from far away.

There are heart-wrenching accounts of citizens being left to fend for themselves even as the solicitor general has stated that there’s enough oxygen supply for the country but there’s a shortage in some states. Weeks into this cruel shortage – or allocational mismatch – different administrations remain entangled in bureaucratic faceoffs even though India’s Covid-19 battle is supposed to be underpinned by a “whole-of-government” approach. The capital’s plight is particularly notable. The apex court has asked the Centre to solve Delhi’s problem by the midnight of May 3 after hospitals have been reduced to taking to social media to plead for oxygen day after day, even as erratic supplies cause tragic deaths.

What the recent weeks reveal is that both Centre and states have been woefully unprepared for the second wave. To make matters worse, there appear to have been coordination issues not only between the Centre and states, but also within districts in states. There’s an urgent need to sort out basic logistics and ensure that petty procedural holdups don’t lead to loss of lives. Simultaneously, we need to be prepared for coming challenges. In this context, the Centre’s decision to expand the healthcare force by suspending the medical PG entrance exam is a good step. Governments must stop passing the buck and get their act together.


This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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