India battles acute shortage of medical oxygen as daily cases near the 300,000 mark

Families across India have been struggling to find beds with oxygen supply.
Families across India have been struggling to find beds with oxygen supply.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - "I can't breathe" - this slogan associated with the Black Lives Matter movement is now being shared by many Indians online to capture the country's desperate mood as it struggles with an acute shortage of medical oxygen amid an unprecedented spike in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

Families across the country have been struggling to find beds with oxygen supply in the last few days, with reports of some patients even dying outside hospitals after being forced to wait because of a lack of beds.

India reported 2,023 deaths from Covid-19 on Wednesday (April 21), the highest single-day tally for the country. It also registered 295,041 cases on Wednesday, its highest daily increase as well, in an ongoing surge that has increased the demand for medical oxygen and overwhelmed India's inadequate health infrastructure.

Among the many chasing a bed with oxygen supply in Delhi on Wednesday morning was Mr Anil Kumar, whose brother Manoj reported positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday. Mr Manoj Kumar's oxygen saturation levels had dropped to around 60 per cent on Tuesday night, much lower than the prescribed level of 95 or more.

Mr Anil Kumar called several hospitals, only to be told there were no beds available, including at a private one in the city, where he works in the administrative section. "Wherever we went, we were told there is a bed crisis going on. We are not getting (oxygen) cylinders anywhere, neither beds," Mr Kumar told The Straits Times.

Their frantic search was still on when ST last spoke with the family on Wednesday evening. They also worked the phone and bought a refillable oxygen cylinder from Gurgaon, a Delhi suburb, for 28,000 rupees (S$493) in case of any emergency, despite the jacked-up price.

The Kumars' ordeal has become commonplace in India today. Even in the country's capital, which has better health infrastructure than most parts of the country, hospitals are gasping for medical oxygen. Mr Manish Sisodia, Delhi's deputy chief minister, tweeted a list of hospitals in the city on Tuesday night that were running low on oxygen supply.

Many of these had stocks for less than 12 hours. "I urge central govt wid (sic) folded hands to urgently provide oxygen to Delhi," the state's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal added in a tweet. Some of the medical facilities received a late-night refill on Tuesday.

At least three major hospitals in Delhi reported shortages on Wednesday as well, down to a few hours, amid accusations that the neighbouring state of Haryana had blocked tankers at the border with Delhi to meet its own needs.

States with oxygen-producing facilities have been reluctant to let go of supplies, fearing they themselves may face shortages. This has prompted calls for the central government to intervene in this crisis that has left states sparring over the scarce commodity.

Meanwhile, 22 Covid-19 patients died in Maharashtra state's Nashik city on Wednesday, following a leak in an oxygen tank outside the government-run Dr Zakir Husain Hospital, which had disrupted the oxygen supply to critically ill patients for around 30 minutes.

In Navi Mumbai, Dr Amit Thadhani, director of the Niramaya Hospital, said the crisis in oxygen supply is worse this time than what he had experienced in the first wave, during which he had to divert supply from relatively stable patients to those in dire need of oxygen.

"The situation is even more grim (this time) and we came close to running out of oxygen before municipal authorities arranged fresh supplies. Even now, the situation is still touch-and-go," he told ST.

Prices of medical oxygen have gone up nearly by six times and Dr Thadhani has had to rope in three suppliers to ensure that there is no disruption in oxygen supply.

Amid this crisis, even the value of shares in companies that produce the gas - or just feature the word "oxygen" in their names - have increased in the last few days.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech on Tuesday night, said the government is working to ensure adequate oxygen supply. "The central and state governments as well as the private sector are together trying to ensure oxygen supplies to those in need. We are trying to increase oxygen production and supply across the country," he said.

Progress in ramping up oxygen supply has been slow. An investigation this week by Scroll.in, an Indian news portal, showed that the government invited bids for oxygen generation plants in 150 district hospitals across the country only in October, eight months into the pandemic. Most are still not functional.