India scrambles to get oxygen to hospitals amid COVID-19 case climb

Indian authorities scrambled Saturday to get oxygen tanks to hospitals where COVID-19 patients were suffocating amid the world's worst coronavirus surge, as the government came under increasing criticism for what doctors said was its negligence in the face of a foreseeable public health disaster.

Nationwide coronavirus case count now exceeds 16 million since start of pandemic

What's behind India's huge spike in COVID-19 cases

2 years ago
Duration 7:00
In India, overburdened hospitals have closed admissions, having run out of beds and oxygen supplies following a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.

Indian authorities scrambled Saturday to get oxygen tanks to hospitals where COVID-19 patients were suffocating amid the world's worst coronavirus surge, as the government came under increasing criticism for what doctors said was its negligence in the face of a foreseeable public health disaster.

For the third day in a row, India set a global daily record of new infections. The 346,786 confirmed cases over the past day brought India's total to more than 16 million, behind only the United States.

The Health Ministry reported another 2,624 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India's COVID-19 fatalities to 189,544. Experts say even those figures are likely an undercount.

A worker prepares to refill medical oxygen cylinders to supply to hospitals for COVID-19 patients at a facility in Amritsar, India, on Saturday. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

The government ramped up its efforts to get medical oxygen to hospitals using special Oxygen Express trains, air force planes and trucks to transport tankers, and it took measures to exempt critical oxygen supplies from customs taxes.

But the crisis in the country of nearly 1.4 billion people was only deepening as overburdened hospitals shut admissions and ran out of beds and oxygen supplies.

A 'tsunami' of infections

"Every hospital is running out [of oxygen]. We are running out," Dr. Sudhanshu Bankata, executive director of Batra Hospital, a leading hospital in the capital, told New Delhi Television channel.

In a sign of the desperation unfolding over the shortages, a high court in New Delhi warned on Saturday that it would "hang" anyone who tries to obstruct the delivery of emergency oxygen supplies amid evidence that some local authorities were diverting tanks to hospitals in their areas.

Construction labourers wear masks as a precaution against the novel coronavirus while walking in Hyderabad, India, on Saturday. (Mahesh Kumar A./The Associated Press)

The court, which was hearing submissions by a group of hospitals over the oxygen shortages, termed the devastating rise in infections a "tsunami."

At least 20 COVID-19 patients at the critical care unit of New Delhi's Jaipur Golden Hospital died overnight as "oxygen pressure was low," the Indian Express newspaper reported.

"Our supply was delayed by seven-eight hours on Friday night, and the stock we received last night is only 40 per cent of the required supply," the newspaper quoted the hospital's medical superintendent, Dr. D.K. Baluja, as saying.

On Thursday, 25 COVID-19 patients died at the capital's Sir Ganga Ram Hospital amid suggestions that low oxygen supplies were to blame.

A delayed danger

India's infection surge, blamed on a highly contagious variant, came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus in January, telling the virtual gathering of the World Economic Forum that India's success couldn't be compared with anywhere else.

"In a country which is home to 18 per cent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively," Modi said.

A man pulling a cart on his bicycle wears a mask and a face shield as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Siliguri, India, on Saturday. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

But health experts and critics say a downward trend in infections late last year lulled authorities into complacency, as they failed to plug the holes in the ailing health-care system that had become evident during the first wave. They also blame politicians and government authorities for allowing superspreader events, including religious festivals and election rallies, to take place as recently as this month.

"It's not the virus variants and mutations which are a key cause of the current rise in infections," Dr. Anant Bhan, a bioethics and global health expert, tweeted this week. "It's the variants of ineptitude and abdication of public health thinking by our decision makers."

Dr. Vineeta Bal, who studies immune systems at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, India, said that at the heart of India's "paralyzing" oxygen shortage was the sense of complacency that took hold as cases declined.

Relaxed restrictions

When the virus first erupted in India last year, Modi imposed a harsh, nationwide lockdown for months to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. But the government relaxed restrictions in the face of widespread financial hardship, and Modi has refrained from ordering a new lockdown.

A person wearing a protective suit stands next to an ambulance carrying a family member who died from COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi on Saturday. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

But a pandemic doesn't just end, Bal noted. Summing up the authorities' response, she said: "Failure of governance, failure of anticipation, failure of planning, compounded by this sense that we've conquered [the virus]."

Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and opposition politicians took part this month in mass election rallies in five populous states with tens of thousands of supporters who were not wearing masks or practising physical distancing.

In addition, religious leaders and hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus descended on the banks of the Ganges River in the northern Indian city of Haridwar last month for a major Kumbh Mela festival. Experts have described these as superspreader events.

"Political and religious leaders have been exemplary on television for not following the restriction that they're saying ordinary people should follow," Bal said.

A man walks past people waiting to refill medical oxygen cylinders for COVID-19 patients in Allahabad, India, on Saturday. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Supreme Court of India told Modi's government to produce a national plan for the supply of oxygen and essential drugs for the treatment of coronavirus patients.

The government said Saturday it would exempt vaccines, oxygen and other oxygen-related equipment from customs duty for three months, in a bid to boost availability.