The Union government had on July 20 told the Rajya Sabha that no deaths were specifically reported in states and Union Territories due to lack of oxygen.

A patient being helped with oxygen at a hospitalPTI
news Coronavirus Monday, July 26, 2021 - 16:38

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The Union government recently claimed that no COVID-19 patients had died due to a lack of oxygen. While several public health experts have accused the government’s response as lacking in empathy and not reflecting reality, a document TNM has accessed exposes the Union government’s claim as hollow, showing that at least 23 deaths were reported in Andhra Pradesh alone on May 10, 2021 at Tirupati’s Ruia Government General Hospital due to lack of adequate oxygen.

Minister of State (MoS) for Health Bharati Pravin Pawar had on July 20 informed the Rajya Sabha that no deaths due to lack of oxygen were specifically reported by states and Union Territories during the second wave that hit the country. The MoS also stated that health is a state subject and that states and Union Territories regularly report the number of cases and deaths to the Union government. These deaths are to be reported as per the laid down guidelines.

On Friday July 23, the Superintendent of the Sri Venkateswara Ramnarayan Ruia Government General Hospital filed a complaint at the Alipiri Police Station in Tirupati against an oxygen supplier for its alleged role in the death of 23 people due to lack of oxygen. The complaint was filed against Shree Bharath Pharma and Medical Oxygen Distributors, Kurnool, which was responsible for supplying and distributing liquid medical oxygen to the hospital.

A copy of the complaint 

The police complaint comes more than two months after the tragedy. On May 10, 23 COVID-19 patients died at the hospital after there was an alleged delay in providing Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO) by the oxygen supply agency. In the complaint letter, which TNM has accessed, Dr T Bharathi, the Superintendent of the hospital, urged action against the oxygen supply agency. “You are aware that 23 COVID-19 patients expired due to non availability of Oxygen on 10-05-21 in medical wards of this hospital due to the delay caused in providing liquid medical oxygen on time by the oxygen supply agency,” stated the complaint.

The Superintendent’s complaint went on to say, “During the preliminary enquiry conducted by the Collector and District Magistrate, Chittoor it was noted that (1) the oxygen supply contract agency had delayed in providing LMO on time from Tamil Nadu despite an alert being raised to the agency. (2) The oxygen supply agency was bound to maintain the emergency backup manifold system but the cylinders were put in place at 7.30pm by hospital authority and (3) the alarm system to provide alert in case of drop in pressure is not functional.”

Speaking to TNM, Alipiri Inspector of Police Devendra Kumar confirmed that an FIR has been registered under relevant sections of the IPC.

Although a police complaint has only recently been filed in the incident, the tragedy was reported by multiple media outlets in May. On the day of the incident - May 10 - the Chittoor District Collector Harinarayan had told the media that 11 patients had died due to oxygen supply issues. He had then said, “The incident happened around 8-8:30 pm due to oxygen pressure issues. The oxygen supply was restored within five minutes and everything is now normal. Because of this we could prevent more casualties.” However, the complaint now filed by the Superintendent of the hospital mentions that 23 patients had lost their lives that day.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, who had ordered an inquiry into the incident, had on May 11 said,  “Yesterday was a day that made us feel really bad. Despite working really hard and putting in our best efforts, there are some things that are out of our hands and for such things too we are to take responsibility. An incident took place in Chittoor district where a tanker which was to come from Tamil Nadu didn’t make it on time and I’m informed due to the shortage it led to the death of around 11 people.”

The report of the preliminary investigation into the tragic incident at Ruia Hospital remains confidential. However, a well-placed senior source revealed to TNM that the deaths due to the oxygen shortage at the hospital was due to mismanagement and lack of coordination between those responsible in the hospital and the district administration. “Had an alert been sounded well in advance and had the buffer stock been used effectively, the loss of lives could have been avoided,” the source revealed.

The May 10 incident raises several questions, especially in light of the Union government’s response in Parliament. Did Andhra Pradesh fail to inform the Union government about the 23 deaths due to oxygen unavailability? Or did Andhra Pradesh officials inform the Union government about the incident but the same was not taken cognisance of by the Centre? To find out if Andhra Pradesh had informed the Union government about the incident in Ruia Hospital, TNM reached out to Anil Kumar Singhal, Principal Health Secretary of Andhra Pradesh. He told TNM, “I have no comments to offer on this.” Hoping to get an answer, we also tried reaching out to Andhra Pradesh Health Commissioner Katamaneni Bhasker via messenger and calls but our attempts yielded no response.

Those like Chhattisgarh Health Minister TS Singh Deo have, however, accused the Union government of deliberately misleading Parliament, pointing out it had never sought data from states on deaths due to lack of oxygen.

This story is a part of the TNM COVID-19 reporting project. To support this project, make a payment here

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