Delhi hospitals continued to send desperate messages for emergency oxygen supplies overnight Sunday, warning patients are at risk.
The crisis started two weeks ago but shows no signs of slowing down.
At least 12 patients, including a doctor, died on Saturday when a leading hospital ran out of oxygen. Outside of hospitals, families of patients who cannot find a bed find it difficult to obtain portable bottles – sometimes in queues for up to 12 hours.
Several large hospitals in Delhi depend on daily supplies of oxygen, but they do not receive enough to keep some in case of an emergency.
A doctor described the situation as frightening, explaining: “Once you have used up your main tank, there is nothing left to fall back on.”
The situation is even worse in small hospitals that do not have storage tanks and have to rely on large cylinders.
And the oxygen crisis comes as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Delhi alone reported more than 20,000 new infections and 407 deaths on Sunday.
India, meanwhile, over the weekend recorded its highest daily death toll from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic and became the first country to register more than 400,000 new cases in a single day.
‘It’s a battle every day’
Dr Gautam Singh, who runs the Shri Ram Singh hospital, says he has 50 Covid beds and space for 16 intensive care patients, but had to refuse admissions because there is no guarantee of oxygen supply.
He’s made a number of SOS calls over the past few days, getting oxygen just in time to avert disaster.
“It’s a battle we fight every day,” he said. “Half of my hospital staff are on the road with bottles to get them refilled every day, going from place to place.”
Below is a recent heartbreaking call from her that I tweeted.
Dr Singh says the possibility of patients dying without oxygen in the hospital is preventing him from sleeping.
“I should focus on treating my patients and not run for oxygen,” he says.
Other hospital owners face the same ordeal as well.
A woman whose family runs a hospital in Delhi said there was no coordination between authorities when the crisis erupted.
“During those few days, we had no idea who the contact person was and who had the power to solve the problem,” she recalls.
She says the situation is “slightly better now,” but there is still uncertainty over supply that affects their ability to admit more patients.
“Whenever someone asks me if I have a leash for an oxygen bed, I feel bad for saying no because I don’t have one.”
SOS calls from hospitals, especially small hospitals that rely on bottles and don’t have a storage tank, arrive almost every day.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has repeatedly said the city is not getting enough oxygen from the federal government, which allocates oxygen quotas to states.
Federal officials say there is no shortage of oxygen, but the challenge comes from transportation.
The Delhi High Court said on Saturday that “enough is enough”.
“You [the government] have to fix everything now. You made the allowances. You have to fill it out, ”he says.
“ People are paying the price ”
But the situation on the ground is still dire.
“People pay a price for political feuds between state and federal government. Sometimes the price is their lives,” said one analyst.
Families who have managed to find a bed are also under extreme stress due to the uncertainty over oxygen supply.
The past 48 hours have been atrocious for Altaf Shamsi.
He and his entire family tested positive for Covid-19 last week.
His pregnant wife fell seriously ill and had to be transferred to a hospital where she gave birth to a daughter on Friday. A few hours after a complicated birth, she had to be put on a ventilator, where she remains in critical condition.
Altaf was later informed that his father had died in another hospital, while at the same time the hospital where his wife and baby are in an intensive care unit said he was lacking oxygen.
The hospital eventually received a day of emergency supplies, but Altaf is concerned about the issues that arise again.
“Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?” he says.
And in addition to concerns about oxygen, the hospital asked him to move his wife to another facility, saying it did not have enough staff.
This means he was left to monitor his wife’s oxygen levels and fever.
“You can’t even imagine the pain I’m going through,” he says.
“ My father lacked oxygen ”
Portable oxygen cylinders are the only way critically ill patients can continue to breathe at home when they cannot find a hospital bed – a major problem in Delhi.
Abhishek Sharma’s father’s oxygen levels began to drop on Saturday. He rushed to the market to get her a cylinder.
After going to over a dozen stores, he found a small cylinder good enough to last only six hours. He later got out and paid $ 944 (£ 683) to buy a big cylinder, but it was empty. He took him to several gas stations, but only one was ready to help him and the line was very long.
“With every minute that passed in the queue, my father was running out of oxygen. I couldn’t ask anyone to let me skip the line because everyone was in the same situation. I had the bottle refilled after six hours on the line, but tomorrow I will have to do the same thing again, ”he says.
“I shudder at what will happen if I fail to get the bottle refilled.”
Public policy and health systems specialist Dr Chandrakant Lahariya said the government had warned of “the potential crisis” but had taken no action.
A parliamentary standing health committee warned of insufficient oxygen supplies and “manifestly inadequate” public hospital beds in November.
Dr Lahariya says the medical oxygen crisis in India was caused by a lack of planning in repairing distribution and transportation networks.
But many are shocked that two weeks after the start of the crisis, patients in the Indian capital are still breathless and that there does not appear to be an end in sight.
‘We have set up a war room’
Faced with the crisis, concerned citizens intervened to help people in distress.
Famous faces lending their support include social activist and politician Tehseen Poonawalla, politician Dilip Pandey, activist and politician Srinivas BV and actor Sonu Sood.
Mr. Poonawalla helps small hospitals when they are about to run out of oxygen. He says he “connects those who need it with those who can help.”
“We have set up a war room where a small team works with me. I’m just calling people I know – some of whom are in other states but are eager to help, ”he says.
But he says “the situation is getting more and more dire with each passing day.”
“The government has to step in and take it in hand because people like me don’t have endless resources to help every person or every hospital in need.”
The woman whose family runs a hospital in Delhi echoed those concerns.
“I cannot sleep at night thinking that these people who died from lack of oxygen could have been saved. Many of them have families, some have small children. How will we explain to them what happened growing up and ask questions about it? “