Oxygen gets armed escort in India as supplies run low in COVID crisis

FILE PHOTO: A worker loads empty oxygen cylinders onto a supply van to be transported to a filling station, at a COVID-19 hospital, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 22, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sirens wailing, a police convoy escorting a tanker carrying oxygen reached a hospital in India's capital just in time, to the huge relief of doctors and relatives of COVID-19 patients counting on the supply to stave off death.

India on Friday posted the world's largest daily COVID-19 caseload for a second day, with 332,730 new cases and 2,263 deaths, as the pandemic spiralled out of control.

A dire shortage of oxygen - essential for the survival of critical COVID patients - has meant states are closely guarding their supplies and even posting armed police at production plants to ensure security.

Several hospitals, including Shanti Mukand in the west of the New Delhi with 110 COVID patients, said they had almost exhausted their oxygen supplies on Thursday. The prospects for patients and their distraught families was disastrous.

"The hospital came to us and told us to make our own arrangements," said Bhirendra Kumar, whose COVID-positive father was admitted 10 days ago.

"We're not an oxygen company - how can we make our own arrangements?"

Earlier in the day, the hospital's chief executive, Sunil Saggar, choked back tears as he described the decision to discharge some patients because the lack of oxygen meant there was nothing his hospital could do to help.

At the hospital's oxygen supplier, Inox in Uttar Pradesh state about an hour from the capital, a line of a dozen trucks from cities across north India waited to fill up.

Half a dozen drivers told Reuters they had been waiting for as long as three days to get their trucks filled, as surging demand from hospitals in the capital and elsewhere outstripped supply.

Vakeel, who goes by one name, has been working as a driver for Inox since 1994. He said the level of demand was unprecedented.

"Every hospital wants three or four times what they did before," he said.


The Inox plant has seen frequent visits from government officials and police, some wielding assault rifles, ensuring that there is no disruption of any kind to supplies.

An Uttar Pradesh police officer said they had been given orders to escort trucks to waiting hospitals.

Welcome though the extra security is, a supervisor at the facility said it was impossible to meet demand.

"Even if we build another five plants here we won't be able to," said the supervisor, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Eventually, a truck left the plant, reaching the New Delhi hospital late on Thursday evening.

A relieved crowd of doctors and relatives who had gathered outside to wait for the truck's arrival headed back in.

"Some things in life are difficult," hospital chief Saggar said as the needle on the hospital's storage tank ticked back up from close to zero. "You have to learn to manage."

But the reprieve is only temporary.

"Every day is like this now," Saggar said.

In less than 24 hours, the hospital will have to do it all over again, as the needle sinks back towards empty with new supplies, hopefully, on the way.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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