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'Storm of COVID cases' has India gasping for oxygen

Nation diverts crucial gas from industrial use to meet surging demand in hospitals

A notice at a Delhi hospital on April 22 relays the grim news that oxygen supplies at the facility are exhausted, despite government pledges to divert the gas from industry.    © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Overwhelmed by a "storm" of Covid-19 cases, India is scrambling to tackle an acute shortage of medical oxygen and hospital beds as daily infections break global records and breach the grim milestone of 300,000.

Max Healthcare, which runs a chain of hospitals in northern and western India, sent out an SOS Friday morning that less than an hour's supply of oxygen was left at its facility in the south of Delhi. "Awaiting promised fresh supplies from [the supplier] INOX since 1 a.m.," it tweeted, adding that more than 700 patients needed immediate assistance.

The supplies were temporarily restored following the SOS call, the group said a short while later, adding it was "still awaiting more supplies."

This is by no means an isolated case for medical facilities in the capital city, one of the worst-hit regions by the pandemic in India.

"Many hospitals in Delhi are currently facing an oxygen crisis," with supplies being arranged on makeshift basis, the capital's deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said on Thursday, blaming officials in the neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for blocking supplies meant for Delhi from oxygen plants in their regions and warning that it would be difficult to save lives if the situation persists.

Such desperate calls for replenishment of oxygen supplies are also coming from other regions of the country, including western Maharashtra state, which is home to the financial hub of Mumbai. This is in spite of the central government announcing an increase in daily oxygen supplies for several states.

"Oxygen demand & supply is being monitored round the clock," Indian health minister Harsh Vardhan said on Wednesday, pointing out that Maharashtra's quota of the life-saving gas has been increased from 1,646 tons per day to 1,661 tons, while for Delhi it has been enhanced to 480 tons from 378 tons.

The situation has drawn international attention, with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus both expressing concern on Friday over India's surge in coronavirus cases and oxygen shortage. Johnson told British media that his country is "looking at what we can do to help and support the people of India."

Oxygen cylinders are prepared at a gas supply facility in Bengaluru, India, before being transferred by truck to hospitals. New coronavirus infections are rising faster in India than any other place in the world, capsizing its fragile health system.    © AP

Maharashtra state has a population of over 112 million while Delhi is home to more than 20 million people.

Despite the promises from government, people continue to run helter-skelter in their attempts to arrange oxygen supplies, hospital beds and medicines for their loved ones suffering from Covid-19. Crematoriums and cemeteries are also struggling to accommodate bodies as daily deaths are rising significantly amid the unprecedented health crisis.

On Friday, India reported 332,730 new cases of Covid-19, the highest daily spike anywhere in the world for the second straight day, and which brought the country's total cases to 16.26 million. Fatalities rose by 2,263, a record single-day rise for the country, to 186,920.

The country of over 1.3 billion people is reeling from a more infectious and deadlier second wave of the pandemic after the first wave peaked in mid-September at more than 97,000 daily cases. The current surge in cases could be blamed on new strains of the virus, recent mass gatherings for election rallies and religious festivals, and a growing disregard for social distancing and mask-wearing.

A vaccination drive that began on Jan. 16 has so far seen over 135 million doses administered nationwide, not a significant number considering the country's population, amid reports of jab shortages in several states. Supplies of anti-viral drug Remdesivir, which is being used in the treatment of Covid-19, are also becoming more scarce, along with oxygen supplies.

"After waiting for hours outside a pharmacy to buy Remdesivir for a close relative who has been hospitalized with severe Covid-19 symptoms, I had to return empty handed as the stock ran out," Mukesh, a Delhi resident said.

"All I did throughout the day on Thursday was try to arrange an oxygen cylinder for a friend's father who is being treated for Covid-19 at home," said Nupur, a private sector employee in the city, adding that the patient finally got the vital supplies after hours of efforts. "It was anything but easy [to arrange the oxygen]."

A city-based homemaker whose husband was hospitalized for a week earlier this month after he had difficulty breathing, said they had managed to find a hospital bed with oxygen support for him after a struggle of several hours. Now, she added, the situation was even worse, with hospitals almost running out of space and oxygen supplies. "I'm relieved that we are not looking for a hospital bed at this time."

"India is gasping for oxygen," Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the country's main opposition Indian National Congress, tweeted on Tuesday. "Thanks to [the Indian government's] incompetency & complacency," added Gandhi, who himself has tested positive for Covid-19 and is isolating at home.

In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government "is working with speed and sensitivity" to meet the increasing demand of oxygen in the various parts of the country, which has been hit by a "storm" of coronavirus.

"Efforts are on to increase oxygen production and supply," he said, pointing out that measures such as installing new oxygen plants and diverting oxygen from industrial use were being undertaken.

According to an April 15 official statement, India has a production capacity of 7,127 tons of oxygen per day "and as per need, the surplus oxygen available at steel plants is also being utilized."

On April 12, "the medical oxygen consumption in the country was 3,842 [tons], that is 54% of the daily production capacity," it said, adding the maximum consumption of medical oxygen in the country was by states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.

However, the situation has since deteriorated as the daily cases have risen exponentially. On April 12, India reported more than 160,000 cases, a number that has now doubled.

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