Hospitals in India have been consumed by a desperate scramble for oxygen after the country recorded the world’s highest daily tally of coronavirus cases for a second consecutive day, pushing health services to the brink.
Hospitals in Delhi issued SOS alerts on Friday, saying they had only a few hours’ supply of oxygen left and pleading for government help, while social media was flooded with requests for oxygen cylinders, shared by people seeking urgent care for their relatives.
Special train services began moving tanks of oxygen from steel plants to the worst affected areas in an attempt to relieve the crisis. Shortages are so severe that some states deployed armed police to guard supplies, following reports of theft by desperate families.
Hospitals across northern and western India, including Delhi, were running out of beds and oxygen, according to officials and doctors. “Oxygen will last another two hours,” said Ganga Ram hospital in Delhi in a statement on Friday morning. The hospital, which is treating 500 Covid patients, warned of an impending crisis.
Twenty-five people had died on its wards over the previous 24 hours, it said, adding that it feared another 60 of its sickest patients were at risk and urgent intervention was needed. Tankers arrived at the hospital with oxygen two hours later, providing temporary relief.
By Friday evening, other facilities still had not received deliveries. Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, which was caring for 160 Covid patients, announced at 6pm it had only 30 minutes’ worth of oxygen left. It had been waiting for supplies since Thursday night, it said.
With hospitals overwhelmed and emptied of supplies, patients have been left with nowhere to turn.
Haleem Khan, from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, told the Guardian she had been wandering around government and private hospitals for days searching for a bed for her 76 year-old mother, Nazma.
“In each hospital dozens of people like us were struggling due to oxygen shortage. They were asking hospital authorities [for help], but no one was listening to us,” she said. “Many private hospitals in the district told us that if you want beds, then you should provide oxygen yourself.”
She tried to contact private suppliers of oxygen, but failed to secure any in time. Her mother died on Thursday night, seven days after she first developed a fever.
“Like me, hundreds of people are struggling for oxygen in Jhansi,” she said.
Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan in the US, said it appeared there was no social safety net for the public. “Everyone is fighting for their own survival and trying to protect their loved ones. This is hard to watch,” she said.
As the crisis has deepened, states have accused neighbouring areas of hoarding supplies. In an emergency meeting held with the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the leaders of the worst affected states, Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, questioned who would stop tankers from being blocked on the way to Delhi. “We fear a big tragedy may happen due to oxygen shortage and we will never be able to forgive ourselves,” he said.
The virus has spread with unprecedented speed in India, with health experts blaming lax measures, political failings and a more infectious variant. On Friday morning, India reported another record-breaking daily case load of 332,730 in the previous 24 hours. It followed news on Thursday that India had registered the highest number of infections in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic.
On Friday morning, nearly 2,250 new deaths were also announced.
Television and social media footage from across the country showed chaotic scenes at overcrowded hospitals, with patients lined up on stretchers outside, awaiting treatment.
The western state of Maharashtra, among the worst-hit areas, faced another tragedy in the early hours of Friday morning, when a fire broke out at a hospital in the outskirts of Mumbai, killing 13 people. Earlier this week, 22 Covid patients died at another hospital in Maharashtra when the oxygen supply to their ventilators was disrupted by a leak.
The supreme court told Modi’s government on Thursday that it should produce a “national plan” on the supply of oxygen and essential drugs for the treatment of coronavirus patients.
Manufacturers say there is oxygen available at plants, but that these are a long distance from the hospitals that are hardest hit.
“We have ramped up the production as oxygen consumption is rising through the roof. But we have limitations and the biggest challenge right now is transporting it to where it’s urgently needed,” said Saket Tiku, the president of the All India Industrial Gases Manufacturers Association, told Associated Press.
Earlier in the year, India’s daily infections had fallen to less than 9,000, with fewer than 80 deaths. Health experts say the country’s leaders wrongly assumed the worst was over and allowed mass events to go ahead – including election rallies, cricket matches and religious festivals attended by millions. The relaxed measures, combined with a more infectious strain of the virus, have been blamed for the dramatic rise in the number of cases.
India has recorded more than 4 million new infections since the start of the month, prompting Britain, Canada, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates to impose restrictions on flights from the country.
“Indians let down their collective guard,” Zarir Udwadia, a pulmonologist on Maharashtra’s taskforce, wrote in the Times of India newspaper. “We heard self-congratulatory declarations of victory from our leaders, now cruelly exposed as mere self-assured hubris.”
India has administered 135m doses of vaccine, but this covers only a small section of the country’s 1.38 billion population. So far, 8.23% of people have received one dose, and 1.39% are fully vaccinated.
The government plans to make vaccines available to all adults aged over 18 from 1 May, but several states are experiencing shortages and the Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, has said it will not be able to meet its target to produce 100m monthly doses by the end of next month.
“It is tragic, the mismanagement,” Kaushik Basu, a professor at Cornell University and a former economic adviser to the Indian government, said on Twitter. “For a country known to be the pharmacy of the world, to have less than 1.5% of the population vaccinated is a failure difficult to fathom.”
Mohammad Sartaj Alam contributed reporting