“Not less than a genocide,” is how the Allahabad High Court described the lack of critical oxygen supplies in hospital wards in a scathing rebuke. This remark was directed at the authorities responsible for procuring oxygen supplies, describing their negligence as a “criminal act”.
Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar said at a recent hearing “we are at pain in observing that death of COVID patients just for non-supply of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of the liquid medical oxygen.” Such is the situation across much of India, with oxygen and other medical supplies dwindling due to the rapid influx of COVID-19 patients. While the first wave in the country saw India surging to record high cases at the time, the second wave has all but eclipsed these figures.
The country has recently surpassed twenty million cases, with close to 3.5 million of these currently being active cases. More than 300,000 new cases have been reported each day for more than a week, with 400,000 being recorded on April 30th. These figures dwarf the initial wave’s high point of 100,000.
Deaths have likewise increased substantially over this time period. While the initial wave recorded deaths at a high point of just over 1,000 per day, the second wave’s figures continue to grow. A current high point of 3,786 occurred on May 4th, with deaths likely to continue to rise as fatalities trail behind the current peak in active cases.
A key issue comprising the scathing remarks by the Allahabad High Court is the fact that many of these deaths would not have occurred had medical oxygen been available. In Karnataka twenty-four people died in one hospital overnight on Sunday after the hospital ran out of oxygen, though the district administration denied that shortages had caused the deaths. “There is no centralised coordination of oxygen supply and distribution. It is completely haphazard and red tape has held back timely deliveries,” Kumar Rahul, secretary in the health department of Punjab, told DW.
COVID-19, since the beginning of the pandemic has placed staggering numbers of individuals into intensive care units (ICUs). These facilities are vital in ensuring those affected can weather the worst of the symptoms. Shortages in oxygen, even for short periods of time, can prove lethal to those on assisted breathing.
The second wave has all but overwhelmed India, in part, due to the fact that the worst was assumed to be over. Health Issues India previously noted that “as shortly ago as early March, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan claimed India was in the “endgame” of the pandemic. Given the perception that the issue was largely over, many large scale events occurred, including cricket matches and religious gatherings. These were often attended by thousands of individuals, many maskless, and have since been speculated as superspreader events that have spurred the second wave.”
Doctors on the ground have given dire warnings that the system is overwhelmed. “There’s no oxygen,” said Mathew Varghese, one of St. Stephen’s Hospital in New Delhi’s senior doctors. “The system is broken down and we’re losing patients. We don’t know what to do. We’re used to saving lives and we’re watching people die.”
Desperation on the part of the hospitals has seen them launch public appeals over social media to suppliers and anyone in a situation where they may assist. Patients themselves have been placed into cruel situations as scammers have taken the desperate situation as an opportunity to make money. As Health Issues India recently reported
“Evidence is mounting that individuals are running scamming campaigns through social media, with black market numbers circulating online. These individuals promise to deliver items such as oxygen canisters and medications. When contacted, these individuals typically request payments upfront, and… once payment has been made all contact will cease.”
The situation is desperate. International aid is attempting to fill the void and alleviate the death tolls through lack of oxygen. Domestically the country has diverted industrial stockpiles of oxygen to medical use, though this is likely to take some time to be properly distributed. Given the dire situation of preventable deaths, more must be done to ensure backup supplies are maintained as a safety net as cases continue to rise.