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For more than two weeks the calls have kept on coming, sometimes over 1,000 a day. The voices on the end of Mohit Arora’s phone are desperate for only one thing: oxygen.
“We are getting 1,000 calls a day but we can only accommodate 10 to 15 cylinders a day, that’s it,” said Arora. “It’s very painful – people are calling and crying down the phone, pleading for oxygen all through the night.”
As a devastating Covid-19 second wave has enveloped India, the capital, Delhi, has found itself gasping for breath, as cases have soared and oxygen supplies have run low – and, in some hospitals, have run out entirely, leaving patients to die in their beds.
As hospital and intensive care beds in the capital have filled far beyond capacity, the instruction from doctors has been for patients to find oxygen for themselves. As a result, demand for oxygen cylinders has soared to unprecedented levels, with some hidden market vendors selling a single oxygen cylinder usually worth 6,000 rupees (£58) for upwards of £700.
But a civilian oxygen army has also stepped into the breach in the city, providing cylinders and oxygen refills free of charge to those in desperate need. Arora is part of the Sewa Satkar Trust, which distributes free oxygen cylinders across Delhi to those who call. But its capacity is nowhere near enough to meet the ever-growing demand.
“The situation in Delhi is particularly terrible: people are dying on the roads and outside of hospitals when they cannot get the oxygen they need,” he said. “We do the best we can but it’s so painful to have to say no, because every day we just don’t have enough. Sometimes we have to switch off our phones so we can relax, even just for half an hour.”
Recently even Delhi’s largest private hospitals such as Vedanta have been calling “telling us they have shortages and asking we help provide them with emergency cylinders”, said Arora.
He added: “It’s very clear that both the central and state governments have failed, and so it’s up to small NGOs and civilians to try and step in and do what we can. But it’s not enough, it’s not even nearly enough to fill the gap.”
The Sewa Satkar Trust was among several volunteer organisations which said it was getting harder and harder for them to find oxygen from industrial plants. New regulations introduced by the government mean that industries now have to give their oxygen directly to hospitals, rather than filling up individual cylinders. But most patients in need of oxygen can’t get into the hospitals.
Cases are still going up in the capital, which now has a positivity rate of over 35% and is registering more than 20,000 new cases every day, while India continued to report more than 300,000 new cases again on Tuesday; that day there was not a single intensive care bed available in Delhi.
India’s oxygen crisis has become so severe that the international community has begun to send support, with the World Health Organization sending 4,000 oxygen concentrators, which draw oxygen from the air, and countries including Germany, Singapore, the US, the UK and even the tiny neighbouring kingdom of Bhutan all pledging oxygen supplies and generators.
Faisal Khaliq of the Masjid and Madrasa Amania Trust is among those who have been helping distribute oxygen cylinders free of charge across Delhi. Working with another NGO, the Asma Esa Foundation, it started buying cylinders in February and now distributes about 200 cylinders for nothing across Delhi. But Khaliq said it was “impossible” to fulfil all the requests and at least 5,000 oxygen cylinders would be needed to meet the current demand.
“To be very honest, in many cases I have cried after hearing the way people were asking – no, literally begging – for an oxygen cylinder to save their loved ones,” said Khaliq. “After disconnecting sometimes I cry for 10 minutes, then start picking up the calls again. It’s really unbearable to hear those begs, those cries, asking for oxygen, ready to pay anything, ready to do anything for a 10kg cylinder.”
Mohammad Nauman of the Asma Esa Foundation said the volunteers – who are funding the cylinders and refills from their own pocket and through donations – were not sleeping as calls for oxygen came 24 hours.
“It is getting more difficult every day to find the oxygen, the requirements and demand is so high, and we worry every single day that we won’t be able to get what we need because availability is getting lower day by day,” said Nauman.
“We feel helpless. We want to give oxygen to everyone who calls but there is no way, we don’t have enough.”
It is not just Delhi that is struggling with oxygen supplies. In Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most populous states, the city of Agra – home of the Taj Mahal – has been experiencing acute oxygen shortages. Despite the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, insisting that the state had “no shortage of oxygen”, and threatening to take legal action against hospitals which claimed to be running dry, those living in Agra spoke of a “miserable shortage of oxygen”.
Activist Narendra Kumar Paras, who is helping to distribute oxygen across the city, said he was receiving 900 phone calls a day but could only answer about 500 of them. “Thousands of people are queueing every day at the oxygen centre to get oxygen for their lived ones, with no social distancing,” said Paras. On Tuesday, a violent tussle broke out at an oxygen centre and one man was caught on video shouting: “Shoot me but don’t stop me from taking the oxygen cylinder.”
“I have been in contact with lot of people who are not getting oxygen for the past three days,” said Paras. “It’s so distressing. People call me weeping. Sometimes children call me crying, asking me to bring oxygen for their father, who cannot breathe.”
Paras said several hospitals in Agra were calling him because they did not have the oxygen supplies that they needed. “The hospital authorities are also upset. They plead with the administration that we do not have oxygen,” he said. “They are so helpless they are calling me to help provide oxygen to their patients.”
In Jhansi, another hard-hit city in Uttar Pradesh, student Akash Parashar has helped provide oxygen to more than 1,500 people locally. “People here are begging for oxygen, but because of the failures of the government people have to say farewell to their loved ones because they can’t get the oxygen they need,” he said. ‘The whole district is suffering but it is as if the government is blind and deaf to our pain.”
Mohammad Sartaj Alam contributed reporting
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘People phone up pleading’: the volunteers battling India’s oxygen crisis | India