India Covid latest: Patients suffocating from lack of oxygen as hospitals turn people away

Andy Gregory
·5-min read
A worker refills medical oxygen cylinders at a charging station on the outskirts of Prayagraj (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
A worker refills medical oxygen cylinders at a charging station on the outskirts of Prayagraj (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Scenes of devastation continue in India, where the world’s highest ever daily spike in new coronavirus infections was recorded for a third consecutive day and hospitals fielding growing queues of desperate patients begged for the luxury of oxygen amid an all-out government push to provide it.

In the crisis-stricken capital of Delhi, some did not survive the wait for care, dying outside as a result of a lack of beds, while shortages in oxygen supplies probably claimed the lives of scores of those merely fortunate enough to have been admitted at all.

“Every hospital is running out [of oxygen]. We are running out,” Dr Sudhanshu Bankata, the executive director of Batra Hospital, told New Delhi Television.

With four Delhi hospitals forced to close due to shortages on Thursday, many of those remaining continued to issue SOS calls for deliveries of the life-sustaining gas – which is being urgently distributed by the national government on military planes, trucks and trains dubbed “oxygen expresses”.

Asked about the response to his hospital’s emergency calls, Dr Bankata replied: “Nothing. It’s over. It’s over.” The hospital later received enough supplies to run for just a few hours.

In a sign of the desperation unfolding over the shortages, a high court in Delhi reportedly warned 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.

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

While the 346,786 infections reported on Saturday were the highest ever recorded in any country, the 2,624 new deaths also set a grim new precedent in India’s battle with Covid-19.

The dire situation described by one doctor on Friday as the “total collapse of the healthcare system” in India comes just three months after prime minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus.

“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,” Mr Modi told the World Economic Forum’s virtual gathering in January.

While the country has suffered the emergence of a new “double-mutant” variant, some experts allege this apparent complacency is partly to blame for the current catastrophe – with officials failing to use the respite to plug the holes in the ailing healthcare system, and allowing religious festivals and election rallies to take place.

“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, said on Twitter this week. “It’s the variants of ineptitude and abdication of public health thinking by our decision makers.”

And despite the recent rise in infections pushing India’s health system to the brink, experts believe the country is still weeks from its peak – and that the currently soaring official death and case statistics fall short of revealing the true extent of the country’s second wave, dubbed “a devastating reminder” of what the virus can do by World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Saturday.

With the official figures equating to one death every four minutes in Delhi alone, reports from hospitals shed light on the circumstances in which some of these lives are being lost.

At a private hospital in Amritsar, six people died at a private hospital due to a shortage of oxygen, with the managing director telling The Indian Express that their pleas with the district administration for supplies had been met with silence.

At New Delhi’s Jaipur Golden Hospital, at least 20 coronavirus patients in critical care died overnight as “oxygen pressure was low” – reportedly after delays of seven to eight hours in fresh supplies on Friday night, which equated to just 40 per cent of the amount needed.

Despite the heartbreak inside hospitals, one doctor spoken to by ITV News spoke of his “relief for those patients who will get their bed”, describing people as dying on the roads in a report showing other would-be patients lying in hospital car parks.

Reuters reports that in Delhi, Covid sufferers arrive every few minutes in rickshaws and ambulances, only to be met with a decision of whether to wait hours in queues or return home, while in other instances – such as in the Uttar Pradesh city of Noida – hospitals without adequate supplies have reportedly been banned from admitting new patients.

Meanwhile, with families waiting for days to cremate their loved ones at overburdened crematoriums, many are turning to makeshift facilities for last rites.

Despite hospitals in states across the country struggling to deal with shortages in medical supplies amid the hundreds of thousands of new daily cases, Mr Modi appeared to claim on Saturday that the outbreak had not reached villages.

The UK and the United States are among nations reportedly looking at how to help India, with Boris Johnson suggesting ventilators and drugs could be sent to the country.

In the US, the country’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said the government’s health agency was engaging with its Indian counterpart to provide technical support and assistance, citing vaccines as an obvious way in which countries could help.

Some experts say the only way India can turn the tide of the current “tsunami” is to ramp up vaccinations and impose strict lockdowns in the so-called red zones of high infection.

This week, it announced plans to open its inoculation programme to all adults, but faces a shortage of doses for its population of some 900 million people – which significantly exceeds the entire combined populations of the European Union and United States.

Additional reporting by agencies

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