India gasps for air as health systems crumble under Covid explosion


A relative of a person who died of COVID-19 reacts at a crematorium in Jammu, India. Photo: AP/Channi Anand

Ravaged by a deadly second wave, India is facing a mammoth medical challenge as hundreds of thousands of patients face a lack of oxygen, hospital beds and anti-viral drugs. The shortages have forced desperate Indians to turn to the black market.

Hospitals in India are sending SOS alerts over the dearth of oxygen supplies for their Covid-19 patients as shortages of anti-viral drugs and equipment spawn a black market for desperate relatives.

India, staring down its worst-ever health emergency, is struggling under an explosion of virus cases that has led to the collapse of medical facilities across major cities.

The worst outbreak of Covid-19 globally has seen India add more than a million infections in the past four days alone, taking its total caseload to over 16 million.

Patients in ambulances, stretchers and private vehicles have been waiting outside hospitals filled to capacity. Families wait hours to perform the last rites as reports say furnaces made of iron at crematoria are melting because of overuse.

Oxygen supply has been a huge problem, particularly in New Delhi, the hardest-hit among Indian cities.

A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, outside a parked car along the roadside amid Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Ghaziabad. Photo: AFPA patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, outside a parked car along the roadside amid Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Ghaziabad. Photo: AFP

Several hospitals have warned patients admitted in the intensive care units could die, since they have only hours of oxygen stocks left. Supplies have been reaching just in the nick of time, in many cases.

Among the city’s main hospitals, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, saw a controversy on Friday when some of its doctors contradicted the management and blamed deaths of 25 Covid-19 patients on oxygen shortages.

"I have both my parents admitted in the intensive care unit, but the hospital now tells us they have run out of oxygen and get your own cylinder. They are leaving patients to die. It's all up to God now, ” a woman, Garima, told reporters outside the Pentamed Hospital.

Lack of hospital beds is another major problem. Footage showed patients on stretchers outside the GTB hospital being administered oxygen in make-shift arrangements.

John Abhijeet from Delhi’s suburbs of Faridabad has been in an anguished situation the past week, dealing with both challenges.

After he arranged a hospital bed for his critically-ill mother with great difficulty, he was forced to shift her to another hospital owing to lack of oxygen supplies.

The private-sector executive, his wife and child were found positive later. "Its been such a traumatic and uncertain time. I’ve often broken down in tears trying to get mentally prepared to collect her body and bury her, ” he said.

In the eastern metropolis of Kolkata, Anjan Prasad Majumdar, a theatre actor who has turned volunteer, is supplying oxygen cannisters to patients.

Oxygen tankers are seen on a special train 'Oxygen Express' upon their arrival at a goods yard amid Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Navi Mumbai. Photo: AFPOxygen tankers are seen on a special train 'Oxygen Express' upon their arrival at a goods yard amid Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Navi Mumbai. Photo: AFP

"Oxygen supplies have been drying up since January as cases increased. Everyday I get between 250 and 300 calls. But I can supply only to a limited number. I will be able to supply 50 cannisters today, 100 people are still waiting in the queue, ” he said.

Shortages in supply and hoarding by people has led to the black marketing of oxygen cylinders, Majumdar said, with "agents” selling oxygen cylinders three to four times their price at 4,000 rupees (RM219).

A huge demand has also led to anti-viral drugs being sold on the black market in Delhi as well as poor states like Bihar. Abhijit said his inquiries revealed that a 100 milligram vial of Remdesivir was being sold for 30,000 rupees (RM1,644), six times the official price.

Delhi police spokesman Chinmoy Biswal said some arrests had already been made and warned of strict action. "We are trying to proactively detect the black marketing. We are conducting raids using police personnel as decoy customers.”

Premier Narendra Modi’s government, in a triumphalist mode thinking it had won over the first wave, has been slammed for having misread the situation and coming up with a late and callous response.

State election rallies and the mammoth weeks-long Kumbh festival attended by tens of millions of people, potential superspreader events, were allowed.

Experts say India’s vaccine rollout should have happened much faster: only 135 million doses have been administered among its 1.3 billion population since January. India took months to approve foreign vaccines as it stuck to its nationalistic stance on two domestically-made vaccines.

"We failed in preparedness. Nobody, the medical community, scientists or the government expected such a massive second wave. Even today, we don’t have much data, information how mutations have spread, our genome sequencing is limited, ” Indian Medical Association president J A Jayalal said.

"While the worst-affected states are enforcing lockdowns to break the chain, these measures need to continue at least two weeks till hospitals and the medical community can recoup to tackle the crisis. There is an acute manpower crisis and staff are stressed out.”

In an interview with a digital news platform Mojo, top virologist Shahid Jameel choked back tears recounting the loss of a friend who was denied a hospital bed and oxygen supply.

There was huge under-counting of deaths, he said, with local media reporting of a discrepancy between official data and cremations taking place.

"This data (of deaths) is completely skewed, manipulated and false. Numbers are being fudged, big time. There is a complete breakdown of the system. India has lost the plot, ” he said. - dpa

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