Denial of oxygen deaths is disrespect for those who have died
I wonder what must be going on in Kanika Duggal’s head after hearing from Union Minister of State for Health Bharati Pravin Pawar strongly denies any oxygen deaths in any state or Union territory of that country during the second wave of the Covid pandemic.
Kanika, who we featured in one of our recent Outlook covers, recounted in poignant detail how her 54-year-old mother, Raman – a resident of Vivek Vihar in Delhi – died a slow and painful death. from lack of oxygen. Raman had tested positive for Covid a few days after receiving his first vaccine. Still, her condition worsened and she ended up in a hospital that intermittently lacked oxygen. Although Kanika and her sisters were also positive at Covid, they ran to get oxygen cylinders until one day their luck ran out. Raman is dead.
While exceptionally tragic, Kanika’s story is rather common during the worst days of the Covid pandemic which peaked in April-May. We have all heard such heartbreaking stories, even though we were fortunate not to have experienced them ourselves. The oxygen shortage during those months was acute and real. As Covid swept through, family after family were forced to frantically search for oxygen that suddenly seemed nowhere in sight. We have begged, borrowed, and possibly stolen cylinders in our desperate attempt to get our loved ones breathing. Many survived, but dozens died. Memories of those nightmarish days are indelibly etched in our minds as part of what has been our collective yet frightening reality.
But when the Deputy Minister of Health rose on Tuesday to defend the government’s version of contemporary India’s worst crisis in the upper house of parliament, our shared experiences counted little. She defended her government, insisting that none of the states or Union territories had reported deaths from lack of oxygen. From a government perspective, she has done an honorable job, seizing the crisis to score political points. She spilled statistics upon statistics to highlight how the central government had come to the aid of besieged states to overcome the oxygen shortage. So much more oxygen was produced, so much more oxygen was carried… the minister stood firm as the members of the house listened.
We heard it too, though in disbelief. The gap between what she said and what we experienced was radically different. As clinical as her defense might have been, she seemed devoid of compassion. It was also perhaps lacking in contrition, and his statement in no way helped us find any conclusion to the countless tragedies that befell us as a community during these dark and terrible months.
If so, what the minister said further fueled our anxiety. No matter what the government says, the oxygen crisis has claimed lives. Denying it means we haven’t learned any lessons and are far from being reprimanded. It also means that no one, in particular, was responsible and will never be held responsible, although only responsibility can ensure that a similar crisis never visits us.
Whatever the political reasons, denial doesn’t cut much ice. But why has the government chosen to chart such a course? It cannot be true that he is so naive that he does not clearly know what is going on under his nose. Nor can we believe that the current government is locked in a cocoon that has completely cut itself off from the harsh realities. This government is made up of people too intelligent to be held captive by sycophants who only tell them what they want to hear.
A more convincing explanation behind the “unbelievable” denial could be the government’s belief in the correctness of projecting its own strength. It has always presented itself as a muscular entity, unresponsive to external and internal threats. His critics say the projected force is disproportionate and often achieved through a mixture of bluff and swagger. But strong, he must always be seen to be, facing any challenge. Covid included.
That being the larger goal, the minister’s denial serves its immediate purpose. Although that’s no consolation for people like Kanika Duggal. The poor girl should be confused by now. She saw her mother slowly choke. But following the government’s denial, she has to think again about how her mother died in such an unnecessary death.
We also need to reflect on what Rajya Sabha member Manoj Jha poignantly said in Parliament recently. We deserve dignity not only in life, but also in death, said the MP from Bihar while drawing attention to the oxygen crisis. Having died without dignity, people like Kanika’s mother may also be denied due respect due to the government’s refusal.
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