"My father passed away after fighting against COVID-19 for four weeks. The main cause of his death was viral pneumonia which could have been prevented if there were enough oxygen beds available initially. We couldn't admit him when we wanted to owing to lack of oxygen supply to hospitals. He died a day before Eid on May 13. It was the most difficult Eid we have ever witnessed," said 26-year-old Abrar Ahmed, a mechanical engineer in Hyderabad, who lost his father Altaf Ahmed, 63, during the second wave of COVID-19.

Altaf Ahmed was turned down by over 15 hospitals owing to lack of oxygen beds and black marketeers demanded Rs 50,000 for an oxygen cylinder, which his family couldn't afford. They finally did find a bed days after Altaf tested positive, but by then his blood oxygen had dipped to 30%. "It appeared to be too late by the time he got admitted. Even though he got an oxygen bed, 98% of his lungs had already been damaged," he added.

Abrar narrated his ordeal to FactChecker a day after Minister of State for Health & Family Welfare Bharati Praveen Pawar, in a written response in Rajya Sabha said that no death was specifically reported by states and Union territories (UTs) due to lack of oxygen.

"Health is a state subject. Detailed guidelines for reporting of deaths have been issued by Union Health Ministry to all states/UTs. Accordingly, all states/UTs report cases and deaths to Union Health Ministry on a regular basis. However, no deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported by states/UTs," she said in a written response to the question on whether a large number of COVID-19 patients died on roads and hospitals due to lack of oxygen during the second COVID-19 wave.

But, 24-year-old Manoj Bairaghi's uncle did die outside a hospital in a van in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh. Ramsevakdas Dairavi, 60, who lived in MP's Khatora village, died on April 25, 2021. Four days after feeling unwell, he got a Rapid Antigen Test done, as there was no facility for an RT-PCR test in the village. He tested positive, had difficulty breathing and had to be taken 60 kms away to Shivpuri for medical help. "We couldn't arrange for a van with oxygen, so had to take him in a vehicle that had none. But, on reaching the hospital, we were told that there was no bed and no oxygen available there either. He passed away in the van itself," Manoj told FactChecker. "Lack of availability of oxygen killed my uncle," he added.

The oxygen shortage crisis was widely reported between April and May 2021, during the peak of the second wave. Hospitals such as New Delhi's Batra Hospital, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and Jaipur Golden Hospital and Goa's Goa Medical College (GMC) in Goa had issued statements reporting deaths of patients due to lack of oxygen. More than seven hospitals in Delhi had gone to the Delhi High Court as a last resort to ask for oxygen. The panel of two judges — Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli — heard cases almost daily from April 24 to mid-May. This was when Delhi was reporting more than 24,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.

The statement made by the Centre on July 20 has sparked an outrage across social media platforms. FactChecker and BOOM, in a collaborative effort, spoke to medical directors and doctors of eight hospitals in Delhi and one in Goa who had earlier issued statements on deaths due to scarcity of oxygen. We also contacted hospitals that went to court due to the lack of oxygen. Of these four responded. Here's what they had to say.

Hospitals Backtrack

On May 1, 2021, 12 patients, including a doctor reportedly died in New Delhi's Batra Hospital due to the lack of oxygen. Dr Sudhanshu Bankata, executive director of the hospital, had then told The Hindu, "We ran out of LMO (Liquid Medical Oxygen) at 12.15 pm and we received LMO at 1.35 p.m. In between we had some oxygen cylinders, but they cannot support ventilators. Eight people died either due to shortage of oxygen or not receiving oxygen on time." He had added, "Four more persons died later from complications due to lack of oxygen taking the death toll to 12."

On the same day, when asked by The Indian Express if the deaths took place when the oxygen supply in the ICU had dropped, Dr SCL Gupta, medical director of Batra Hospital, responded saying, "Of course… If the hospital will run without oxygen for half an hour…"

However, when FactChecker called Dr Bankata, he refused to comment on the Centre's claim. "Neither I nor Batra Hospital in general wants to comment on the matter currently as it has become a political issue now," said Dr Bankata.

Similarly, in a signed affidavit in the High Court of Bombay at Goa that FactChecker has access to, Goa Medical College's Dean Dr SM Bandekar said adequate and uninterrupted oxygen supply is vital for managing COVID pneumonias. "We have faced many interruptions in the supply of central oxygen on daily basis leading to near critical fall in the oxygen saturations of patients en mass in the intensive care units," Dr Bandekar told the court.

He also said that although there was no problem with the availability and supply of Liquid Medical Oxygen, there was a shortage of loose cylinders and trolleys. "At times, there has been a problem with the supply of these trolleys and loose cylinders as a result of which there have been instances of a drop in the supply of oxygen to the patients, which has resulted in casualties." said Dr Bandekar in the affidavit.

Also, the nodal officer for GMC Dr Viraj Khandeparkar had told the court about deaths due to the shortage of oxygen. "The oxygen interruptions are causing problems leading to deaths. Last night (May 13), the interruption that was caused between midnight and 8am caused 15 deaths," The Times of India quoted him as saying in the High Court of Bombay at Goa.

When FactChecker spoke with Dr Khandeparkar, he denied his own statement. "No patient died because of lack of oxygen directly. There was lack of oxygen but that has not killed anyone. This is all fake news," he told FactChecker.

Also, Jaipur Golden Hospital located in Delhi's Rohini area, was one of the many hospitals that went to court seeking help to procure oxygen. On April 24, senior advocate Sachin Datta representing the hospital told the Delhi High Court that 25 people died because they did not have oxygen supply. "We are literally gasping for breath," said Datta. In a statement given to Hindustan Times, Deep Baluja, medical director of the hospital, had said, "We lost 20 patients, almost all of whom were in critical care units and on a high flow of oxygen. Our liquid medical oxygen was over by about 10pm and then we switched over to the oxygen cylinders attached to the main gas pipeline. There was a drop in pressure and the patients could not survive."

FactChecker tried calling him for his response to the Centre's claim, but he did not answer our calls.

Maharaja Agrasen Hospital had also sought intervention from the Delhi High Court in procuring oxygen but had not reported any deaths. When FactChecker spoke to Dr Deepak Singla, medical director of the hospital, he denied facing any shortage. "We managed with the oxygen we had. So, there was no shortage," Dr Singla said.

On April 23,2021, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital sounded an SOS for oxygen shortage. "Twenty-five sickest patients have died in the last 24 hours at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. Oxygen will last another two hours. Ventilators and BiPAP not working effectively. Resorting to manual ventilation in ICUs and ED. Major crisis likely. Lives of another 60 sickest patients in peril. Need oxygen to be airlifted urgently. Governments please help," the hospital said in a statement reported by The Hindu.

However, Dr DS Rana, chairman of the hospital soon rebutted reports relating to deaths caused due to lack of oxygen. "I would not ascribe the deaths to oxygen shortage. A large number of patients admitted at our hospital are in a very serious condition and that's why the high fatality, Dr Rana told TOI.

When FactChecker contacted the hospital's media spokesperson Ajoy Sehgal he said the patients were all critical and the deaths were not a result of lack of oxygen. "They were all critical but it was not due to lack of oxygen. We told this to the media back in April as well," Sehgal told FactChecker.

The Organised Medicine Academic Guild, which includes doctors such as Dr Randeep Guleria of AIIMS and Ishwar Gilada of ASI, on July 21, released a statement defending the Centre's claim. "Organised Medicine Academic Guild - OMAG a federation of 15 professional associations of post graduate doctors in India, covering 250,000 consultants feels though the statements are factually not incorrect on the fact of it the situation is akin to the movie "No One Killed Jessica"! OMAG appeals the ICMR; which is at the helm of the affair since the pandemic began, to clear the air so that the blame game stops. As finally the entire blame gets shifted to the medical community," the statement which FactChecker has access to read.

Contradictory Statements from States

Two state governments — Maharashtra and Delhi — called out the Centre for their claim. Delhi's Health Minister Satyendar Jain, in a press meeting on July 21, 2021, said the Centre's claim is false. "The Centre should stop rubbing salt on the wounds of those who lost their kin to the lack of oxygen. If no one died from the lack of oxygen then why were the hospitals going to the High Court to fight on the oxygen crisis issue?" he said.

"To find out the exact number of deaths that happened due to lack of oxygen, the Delhi Government had constituted a fact-finding committee. But the centre, through the LG, dismissed the committee and did not let it function," Jain added.

However, on May 4, the AAP government had informed the Delhi High Court that oxygen shortage as the cause of death of 21 patients at Jaipur Golden hospital could not be ascertained by an expert committee that probed the matter.

Similarly, Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra, Sanjay Raut, criticised the government. "I am speechless. What would have happened to the families of those who lost their loved ones to oxygen shortage after hearing this statement? A case should be filed against the government. They are lying." said Raut.

This is when, on the same day, Maharashtra's Health Minister Rajesh Tope said there was no record in the state of any death due to shortage of oxygen during the two waves of the pandemic.

Cry for help for oxygen on Twitter

As hospitals and governments backtrack on their statements, there's record of doctors breaking down during interviews and people requesting for help on social media platforms.

On April 22, Sunil Saggar, CEO of Shanti Mukund Hospital in Delhi broke down in an interview as he spoke about the oxygen crisis in his hospital.

Similarly, Dr Gautam Singh who heads Shree Ram Singh Hospital and Heart Institute, said they were running out of oxygen and did not have enough to sustain their patients.

To add to this, several people on Twitter raised SOS signals and requested for oxygen for their kin. Here are few of them:

Abrar expressed his anguish for the moment when doctors told him that his father's lungs were damaged for not getting oxygen in time and that there was no chance of his survival. "Doctors told us to shift him to another room or take him home. We had to take the tough call. I also informed my father about this (his condition) when he was conscious. He probably even knew that he wouldn't survive," ended Abrar.

(With inputs from BOOM's Shachi Sutaria, Ritika Jain and Sujith A)

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