Hospitals in the Indian capital of New Delhi are pleading that if they don’t get vital supplies of oxygen, they will run out within 24 hours, putting the lives of hundreds of COVID-19 patients in peril as many local media outlets claim the government exported oxygen supplies that could have averted the current disaster.
India is gripped by one of the worst second waves in the world, topping more than 200,000 new COVID-19 cases a day for a week. Hospitals are horrifically overcrowded, with patients sharing beds in some cases.
In the western state of Maharashtra, where nearly 60 percent of all COVID-19 cases have been reported, 22 patients died Wednesday after a leak caused the oxygen tank they were using to run out. “The oxygen tank had a leak while refilling, and that caused deaths of 22 patients,” Suraj Mandhare, health official in the Nashik district of Maharashtra, told Reuters.
India’s Business Today newspaper reported that there has been a sharp rise in the amount of oxygen exported out of the country despite shortages at home.
“Oxygen export data from the Department of Commerce showed that the country exported twice as much oxygen to the world during the first 10 months of FY21 in comparison to the previous financial year,” the newspaper reported.
The exports consisted of liquid oxygen that can be used for both medical and industrial use, according to local media reports. Government officials have insisted the country did not export medical-use oxygen, though it is unclear why there was such a demand for global oxygen exports during the pandemic if not for medical use. The Indian government has also passed legislation that will ban some industrial use of processed oxygen from April 22 to ensure hospitals have enough to save patients’ lives.
Government sources told India Today that the issue is not one of supply and demand but of distribution and delays in the supply chain that are not related to the pandemic.“The issue is that supply is available in places that are very far away from the demand,” Inox Air Products Director Siddharth Jain told the paper. “We are trying to find a way to transport the same.”
Last week, the government ordered several cryogenic rail tankers dubbed the “oxygen express” to industrial areas to retrieve liquid oxygen that can be converted to medical oxygen for local hospitals.
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi called the current crisis a “storm” and pleaded with citizens to comply with strict lockdowns and other measures in place to mitigate the spread. His government has been criticized for allowing religious ceremonies and political rallies to take place, including the month-long Kumbh Mela, or the pitcher festival, that attracted 50 million people to group bathe in the Ganges river to wash away their sins.
“Oxygen demand has increased,” Modi said earlier this week in a taped address. “We are working with speed and sensitivity to ensure oxygen to all those who need it. The center, states and private companies, all are working together.”