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India’s Puzzling Denial About Oxygen and COVID-19 Deaths

A man stands next to the body of his wife, who died due to breathing difficulties, inside an emergency ward of a government hospital in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021.
A man stands next to the body of his wife, who died due to breathing difficulties, inside an emergency ward of a government hospital in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021.
Bharati Pravin Pawar

Bharati Pravin Pawar

India’s health minister

“No deaths due to lack of oxygen had been specifically reported by the states/Uts [union territories].”


India was slammed by a second wave of COVID-19 in mid-March. India officially says some 418,000 people have died from the pandemic, but according to new research, the real figure could be an astonishing 3 million to 4 million deaths.

The BJP government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been under close global scrutiny for its delayed pandemic response. Part of the criticism originated from Indian states that complained of acute oxygen shortages in hospitals. At the same time, oxygen exports from India have doubled during the pandemic.

On July 19, an opposition member of India’s parliament, K.C. Venugopal, demanded an investigation into unnecessary deaths from oxygen deprivation. Television news reports showed Indian citizens in desperate conditions outside hospitals after being turned away for lack of beds and oxygen. Relatives of victims were shown pleading with doctors, who were unable to help.

Indian Minister of State for Health, Bharti Pravin Pawar, claimed in a written statement:

“No deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by the states/Uts [union territories].”

Numerous reports show that this claim is false.

Pawar’s brazen denial shocked many, including the BBC’s India correspondent, Vikas Pandey, who tweeted:

“My cousin was among those who died because the hospital ran out of oxygen. There are countless stories like mine. My phone still has helpless texts asking for oxygen cylinders and beds.”

BBC news had reported back on April 23 that states such as “Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, Haryana in the north, and Madhya Pradesh in central India were all facing an oxygen shortage. Some hospitals in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh have put signs reading 'oxygen out of stock' outside their entrances, while hospitals in the state capital Lucknow have asked patients to move elsewhere.”

On July 21, The Times of India, citing hospitals and other local sources, reported the following death tolls from lack of oxygen:

Delhi: 12 people on May 1 as reported by Batra Hospital.

Goa: 83 people between May 11 and May 15.

Karnataka: 36 people died between May 2 and May 3.

Andhra Pradesh: 23 deaths in May.

Haryana: 19 deaths between April 5 and May 1.

Deputy Chief Minister of New Delhi, Manish Sisodia told Asia News International this week that the government’s lack of responsibility and the fact that it had initiated a change in oxygen redistribution policy on April 13 were to blame for a “massive crisis in India.”

The New Delhi government aimed to set up a committee to account for the deaths caused by shortage of oxygen so families could receive compensation. But Sisodia said the proposal was dismissed by the lieutenant governor of the capital, on orders from the central government.

Modi’s government claimed that political opponents in Delhi were “over exaggerating” the oxygen needs by a factor of four. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences disputed that claim.

In May, the situation in Delhi led to the Supreme Court to order the central government to make “a comprehensive plan” to meet the oxygen requirements.

A report by Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic adviser for the Indian government, and researchers at the Center for Global Development and Harvard University, released on July 20, estimated that the true death toll from COVID-19 in India could be between 3.4 million and 4.7 million people from January 2020 to June 2021 – a figure roughly 10 times the official number.

India’s Government this week dismissed estimates of COVID-19 deaths in the millions as “fallacious” and mere speculation. With an estimated 1.4 billion people, India is the world's second-most populous country after China.