Monday, May 20, 2024

Covid-19 ex-gratia: Too little, too late

The apex court had asked NDMA to recommend guidelines for ex-gratia assistance to family members of persons who died due to Covid-19. Later, it expressed displeasure over the delay in framing guidelines for issuance of death certificates to the affected families. Now, the government has taken a U-turn and responded.

The centre recently informed the Supreme Court that the families of those who died due to Covid-19 will receive Rs 50,000 as ex-gratia compensation. The assistance will also be given to families of those who died of the virus due to their involvement in Covid-19 relief operations or activities associated with the pandemic. The central government announced that the states will give this amount from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF). The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) came up with the guidelines regarding compensation after instructions from the apex court.

The ex-gratia assistance will be given subject to the cause of the death being certified as Covid-19 under the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). According to the procedure, families seeking compensation will have to apply to the disaster management office of the respective districts. Along with the application, the certificate mentioning “death due to corona” and the medical certificate will have to be submitted.

For many victims, it seems like a paltry amount. A plea had been filed in the Supreme Court seeking Rs 4 lakh as ex-gratia payment to the families. However, the centre said that paying Rs 4 lakh as compensation to each victim’s family was not possible as it will dry up SDRF funds. The apex court had then ruled that compensation must be paid to the families and the amount will be decided by the centre.

The Supreme Court in its June 30 order had directed NDMA to recommend within six weeks the guidelines for ex-gratia assistance to family members of persons who died due to Covid-19. On September 3, the Court had expressed displeasure over the delay in framing of guidelines for issuance of death certificates to families. It had asked the centre to file a detailed compliance affidavit by September 11 while hearing the petition filed by lawyer-cum-petitioner Gaurav Kumar Bansal seeking ex-gratia compensation for those family members, whose kith and kin died due to the pandemic.

Following this, the centre filed an affidavit and said that it had laid down guidelines for the issuance of Covid-19 death certificates. As per the affidavit, deaths occurring due to poisoning, suicide, homicide and accident, among others, will not be considered as Covid-19 deaths, even if Covid-19 is an accompanying condition. The top court had then expressed its reservation on excluding suicide deaths from the scope of Covid-19 death categorisation. The guidelines also stated that the death of Covid-19 patients who spent more than 30 days in hospital will also be treated as Covid-19 deaths.

The centre submitted that in compliance with the directions of the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and ICMR on September 3, 2021, have jointly issued guidelines for the issuance of an “official document” for Covid-19-related deaths. The affidavit, attached with a NDMA notification, said: “The Authority recommends an amount of Rs 50,000 per deceased person, including those involved in relief operations or associated in preparedness activities, subject to cause of death being certified as Covid-19.”

The ex-gratia assistance announced by the centre has not been limited to the Covid-19 deaths that took place in the first and second waves of the pandemic. “The ex gratia assistance to families affected by Covid-19 deaths will continue to be provided for deaths that may occur in future phases of the Covid-19 pandemic as well, or until further notification,” NDMA said in the notification.

All these developments may be considered as a U-turn by the central government. Earlier, the centre had claimed in the Rajya Sabha that lack of oxygen did not lead to the death of Covid-19 patients.

For the newly announced compensation assistance, all credit goes to the Supreme Court since the government was in complete denial regarding Covid-19 deaths caused by the lack of oxygen. It was the Supreme Court which showed its displeasure against the central government’s attitude towards the Covid-19 situation.

In an interview to India Legal, Ambuj Dixit, the youth leader co-heading the legal cell of the Indian Youth Congress and also its spokesperson, said: “The statement made in Parliament that there were no deaths reported by states due to oxygen shortage is surprising and horrific. It is well documented that oxygen stock-outs were a trigger and a key underlying reason for several deaths. We owe it to those who lost their lives to be transparent about what were the proximate causes of these deaths, fix accountability and work on ensuring that such a scenario never recurs in our health system. Oxygen shortage was undeniably a direct factor in causing numerous deaths. It is not limited to hospitals, but even patients who were stranded in homes and struggling to get admission in hospitals were affected. There is a reality that cannot be erased from public memory—of hospital owners making daily appeals for oxygen supplies to media and courts and sharing death tolls due to oxygen running out.”

A number of doctors, who were on duty during the peak of the second wave, recounted that many patients with Covid-19 waited endlessly outside hospitals due to lack of oxygen-supported beds. Doctors, who were working in the wards had a different story to tell. Some of the patients even died while waiting in ambulances. “We had patients dying due to oxygen shortage during the crisis. Ventilators and C-PAP machines were not able to deliver the required amount of oxygen because of short supply,” said a government doctor in RML Hospital Lucknow. Another doctor pointed out that a few patients died of hypoxic brain injuries caused by a shortfall in oxygen supply.

India has so far reported more than 4,45,000 Covid-19-related deaths, of which the majority were reported during the disastrous second wave of the pandemic. The fact remains that Rs 50,000 will hardly compensate for the death of a loved one due to Covid-19 or shortage of oxygen supply. Shortage of funds is a poor excuse.   

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and India Legal News Service


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