A few months ago it was mayhem. From April to June major newspapers were choked with stories of midnight-SOS calls for oxygen coming from hospitals across India, often followed by multiple deaths in the span of hours.

There were daily reports of people dying from lack of oxygen. The courts were asked to intervene. Hospital beds had two to three patients plugged into the same oxygen cylinder, and oxygen langars were being set up to help.

While one section of people on Facebook and Instagram were asking for oxygen, another section, mostly young people, were verifying leads and looking for resources for those who needed them.

Now as the second wave of the Covid19 pandemic slowly recedes, the Indian government has claimed that no one died due to oxygen shortage.

Minister of state for health and family welfare Bharti Pawar told the Rajya Sabha on July 20 that “no deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported by states/UTs.”

The Union government’s response has met with severe backlash from all sides.

Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain called the statement “completely false”.

“They will soon say there was no Covid19. If there were no deaths due to lack of oxygen, then why were hospitals going to High Court for shortages? This is completely false,” said Jain.

“I am speechless,” said the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut. “For families who’ve lost their loved ones due to the shortage of medical oxygen, how would they have felt listening to this? These families should file a case against the government.”

While the official death toll in India is 4.18 lakh deaths so far, many recent estimates point to a death toll at least ten times that.

The Citizen interviewed some people who lost their loved ones in the second wave.

Delphin Massey
As told by her son, Erick Massey

On the 15th of April, Delphin Massey, 61, was admitted to Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital after testing positive for Covid19. Erick, her son, spent the next week arranging resources like Remedesvir injections, plasma and medicines for her treatment. Erick spoke to her on April 22, her birthday. “She looked absolutely fine that day and was showing signs of improvement. We thought the worst was over.”

However, on the 24th, Erick got a call from the hospital saying his mother had suffered a heart attack. He went to the ICU to see her, and saw that the ICU which was otherwise packed with COVID patients was absolutely empty. He later found out that his mother along with 25 other patients had died due to a shortage of oxygen at Jaipur Golden Hospital.

“If we had known that the hospital was short of oxygen, we would have arranged it ourselves. Oxygen is the most basic thing in a hospital and it wasn’t available,” said Massey. “If the government is saying that there was no shortage of oxygen they are just fooling everyone and covering it up.”

Vijay Chawla
As told by her son Ashish Chawla

He had just gone home after spending the day arranging medicines for his mother who was infected by Covid19 during the second wave when he got a call at home at 2.30 saying his mom had passed away at the Army hospital in Meerut.

When he reached the hospital, he found that 16 other patients along with his mom had passed away at the same time. “We think it was a cut in the oxygen supply at the hospital, otherwise how would 16 people die at the same time after their families were told they were doing okay?”

“The hospital had no resources, we had to arrange everything ourselves. We were ready to give any amount for the supply of oxygen but there were no resources to be found,” said Ashish Chawla, 34, whose 69 year old mother died before he could even say goodbye.

Rakesh Thakur*
As told by his niece Prachi Bhalla*

Rakesh Thakur had just lost his mother when he became infected himself. “We have no oxygen for you,” the doctors told his family when he was admitted to the Shanti Mukund hospital in Delhi in April last.

His family had to arrange for an oxygen cylinder from an industrial area in Faridabad by paying a heavy price. “We are well off and so we could arrange the oxygen, otherwise the doctors had completely said no,” said his niece Prachi Bhalla.

The father of two was later shifted to Delhi’s VIMHANS hospital after his condition became critical. “You have to arrange oxygen yourself, we can’t give it to you,” the staff at the hospital told the family again.

The family spent the next 20 days searching for medicines, plasma and oxygen. But after a while, Thakur stopped responding to any therapy and succumbed.

“The government's statement that there was no shortage of oxygen is false. We have seen people die in front of our eyes due to the lack of it,” said his niece.

Urja Mathur* and Vimla Sinha
As told by their niece and granddaughter Shatakshi

Shatakshi’s family was informed one day that her aunt had passed away from a heart attack. It was only when they reached the hospital and spoke with the staff and other people they realised that the oxygen in the small hospital in Patna had run out the night before.

Her dadi Vimla Sinha too passed away due to oxygen shortage a month ago, although she was battling sarcoidosis and not Covid19. As it was the peak of the second wave, they couldn’t find an oxygen bed for her in time.

Amidst her grief Shatakshi continued to volunteer to help people arrange oxygen beds. From Bihar alone her team would get around 50-60 messages for help every single day.

“There have been 5-6 instances where, by the time you helped with an oxygen cylinder or bed, the person on the other end would say that it’s of no use, they have passed away,” she said.

As told by his son Sunil*

After spending 15 days in hospital, Sunil’s father was on his way to recovery. He had taken the injections, even had the plasma therapy done and was looking better.

When suddenly on April 24, he received a call early in the morning that his father had suffered heart failure.

The Balaji Hospital of Delhi was pitch dark, he said, and everything looked grim.

News of the hospital running out of oxygen had broken all over the news the previous night, but still, no one informed the family.

“No call, no message was given. I had six filled oxygen cylinders at my place. I could have saved my father,” said Sunil.

Inder Mohan Singh
As told by his son Gunpreet Singh

Just a few hours before they received a call that his father’s heart was failing, his son was on a video call with him and he was looking better than before. Three hours later they received a call that said, “His heart is sinking.”

Gunpreet was in Karnal and his mother was the only family member in Delhi. She rushed to the hospital in the dead of the night. When she reached at 1.30, they found that Inder Mohan Singh had died. They did not know what had happened.

There were a few people who were crying and shouting about the lack of oxygen, but it was only in the morning when they read it in the paper they realised that the Jaipur Golden Hospital had run out of oxygen.

An unnamed girl’s father
As told by Vanshika, a volunteer

At 5.30 one morning, Vanshika got an SOS call for help. A girl on the other line was looking for oxygen for her father.

The volunteer team Vanshika was part of tried to look for oxygen in the early hours of the day, but could not find any hospital or vendor. Later, when they tried to connect with her, the girl’s number was switched off and nobody replied to the many calls and messages they sent.

“So many people like her, we couldn’t help them in time. Sometimes, we were too late and the person had already passed. In one hour we used to get over a hundred requests, sometimes even in the middle of the night. I am still reminded of that girl,” she said.

“At times, we have cried as we felt so helpless, unable to help one person. How can the government say this?” Vanshika asked.

Parents of an NRI
As told by Rohit, an NGO worker

Rohit got a call from an unknown number from London, from a woman requesting him to check on her elderly parents who had been showing symptoms of Covid19. When Rohit reached their house he found the couple lying in bed, shivering. Their oxygen level dropped down to 40.

He lifted both of them out of the house to take them to the nearby hospital. But by the time they were able to reach the hospital it was too late. The couple lost their breath due to lack of oxygen and succumbed in the backseat of Rohit’s car.

“There are many instances where people have lost their lives due to lack of oxygen,” said Rohit. “There was an acute shortage of oxygen.”

Given the surge in need for oxygen, the foundation he works for, Uday Care Trust, decided to buy oxygen from local markets. “A cylinder that should have cost 14,000 was costing us around 80,000,” he said. “We had to buy it because it was a do or die situation.”

*Names changed on request

A nightmare on repeat - India is running out of oxygen again - BBC News