Rajat Sharma

Covid Pandemic: Why India is still facing acute shortage of oxygen

AKBIndia’s total number of Covid-19 cases crossed the 2-crore mark (2,02,82,833) on Monday after 3,57,229 fresh cases were reported on a single day. The death toll jumped to 2,22,408 after 3,449 Covid-related deaths were reported from across the country. As of now, there are 34,47,133 active cases, though the recovery rate is around 82 per cent. 1,66,13,292 people have so far recovered from Covid-19.

Meanwhile, a report has come from Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, which says that a new Andhra variant, N440K, is causing havoc in Visakhapatnam and other parts of Andhra Pradesh. The new AP strain is 15 times more virulent, incubates faster, makes the patient’s condition critical within 3-4 days, has started affecting younger population too and hospitals are now running out of oxygen and ICU ventilators. This AP strain was first noticed in Kurnool.

Hospitals in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and other adjoining states continue to face critical shortage of oxygen, despite nationwide logistics for airlifting oxygen tankers and sending oxygen containers by railway. Private hospitals in Delhi, Meerut and other cities continue to send SOS saying their oxygen supply was tapering off.

The Centre says, oxygen production has been raised by more than one and half times, industrial oxygen is being diverted as medical oxygen, foreign assistance in the form of oxygen concentrators and tankers have arrived, and yet the moot question remains: Where is all this medical oxygen going? People in Delhi-NCR and Lucknow are waiting in kilometre long queues for more than 32 hours to get their oxygen cylinders refilled. A sense of agony and helplessness has gripped the populace.

The government is working on a war footing but the surge in pandemic appears to be faster. All the resources that are being mustered in the form of hospital beds, ICUs, ventilators and oxygen appear to be inadequate. MBBS final year students will now be inducted in the health care sector to boost the strength of Corona warriors. NEET and PG exams have been postponed by four months.

Monday’s worst news came from Chamarajanagar in Karnataka, where 23 patients died after the district hospital ran out of oxygen supply. Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa has ordered a probe. The Deputy Commissioner claimed, only three patients died due to lack of oxygen, while the remaining 20 patients died because of Covid. Relatives of dead patients alleged that all the patients died due to lack of oxygen.

Karnataka is not alone. Five Covid patients died due to oxygen shortage in a private hospital in Meerut. In Lucknow, relatives of patients including the hospital owner, stood waiting for oxygen supply outside the hospital. The SOS was sent 24 hours ago. For the last ten days, relatives of Covid patients in Delhi are running from pillar to post in search of oxygen cylinders. There were kilometre long queues outside refilling centre, with some people saying that they have been in the queue for more than 32 hours. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal claimed that the capital’s oxygen requirement was 976 metric tonnes whereas it was getting 450 metric tonnes. Gujarat is suffering from acute shortage of hospital beds. All the 1,200 beds in Ahmedabad civil hospital are full with patients waiting outside in ambulances.

The Centre claims that oxygen production in India has increased from 7,500 MT to 9,000 MT daily. Now plans are on the anvil to set up Covid care centres near oxygen producing plants, so that precious lives can be saved. Steel plants and oil refineries are going to create huge jumbo sized container type Covid care centres. Nearly 50 per cent nitrogen carrying tankers have now been converted into oxygen tankers. The Centre has identified 37 nitrogen producing plants which will now produce oxygen.

Meanwhile, top business houses are also pitching in with massive assistance. On Monday, Reliance Industries sent 85 MT medical grade oxygen from its Jamnagar refinery to Haryana. RIL is producing 1,000 MT medical grade oxygen daily under the watchful supervision of its chairman Mukesh Ambani. RIL has imported 24 oxygen containers. The Adani group brought in 80 tonnes oxygen by ship from Saudi Arabia. It has brought in cryogenic oxygen tankers from Thailand, Singapore and Dubai. 18 cryogenic tanks brought from Dubai will transport 180 MT medical grade oxygen to hospitals.

On Monday, Italy sent one oxygen generating plant and 20 ventilators to Delhi. The IAF brought in four big oxygen containers from Frankfurt, Germany. The fourth UK consignment, including 60 ventilators and other medical equipment, has also reached Delhi. China sent 700 oxygen concentrators on Monday.

It seems that the demand for oxygen at this moment is too huge compared to the oxygen that is being supplied to hospitals and Covid care centres. Doctors say the new Covid mutant strains are faster and they attack the lungs of the infected within a short space of time. By the time doctors come to know about the extent of lung infection, the virus spreads its tentacles wide inside the body, causing shortness of breath. The patients then need ICU ventilators to revive.

The second, and more important, part of the problem is that a fear psychosis has gripped people living in cities, and many people, who do not require oxygen, are storing oxygen cylinders in their homes, fearing Covid infection. This is sheer injustice and a self-centric act of human greed. They fail to realize that by hoarding cylinders, they are causing the untimely deaths of so many people who require oxygen for their survival.

Among these dark clouds are some thin silver linings. The Centre on Monday reported that the numbers of fresh Covid-19 cases in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, MP, UP, Jharkhand, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand, are now on the lower side and the recovery rate is rising. There is surge of the epidemic in AP, Bihar, Karnataka, Assam and Haryana. There are 22 states where the positivity rate is presently more than 15 per cent. Let us hope that the overall surge will come down in the coming weeks, but the danger will be over only when 70 per cent of India’s population take both doses of Covid-19 vaccine. For the moment, this appears to be a tall order.

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