It has been eight weeks since India’s second Covid-19 wave began, and millions of Indians continue their frantic search for basic healthcare facilities—oxygen, medicines, hospital beds. Once lauded for its low death rate, the country may be staring at an orphan crisis because of mass fatalities.
India recorded 414,188 new Covid-19 cases and 3,915 deaths yesterday (May 6). At the start of the second wave around March 15, India was recording approximately 25,000 cases and 150 deaths a day.
While India’s total Covid-19 fatalities were nearly 160,000 in one year of the pandemic till mid-March, it added 80,000 deaths to its tally since then.
The catastrophic second wave Covid-19 took even the government by surprise, and two months on, efforts to actively mitigate this disaster are not nearly enough.
Despite high-level meetings chaired by prime minister Narendra Modi, Covid-19 patients are dying at small hospitals even in some of India’s largest cities. There are not enough hospital beds, those with ventilators are even more scarce, and oxygen is the new currency Indians are either chasing or hoarding out of fear. All this while, people are dying even in glitzy urban agglomerations.
On May 5, NDTV news channel reported that six people had died at Gurugram’s Kriti Hospital, allegedly because there wasn’t enough oxygen. A ghastly video shows a locked ICU room and all hospital staff missing from the scene. As patients’ relatives make their way into the ICU, they find body after body.
Later, the administrator at the hospital admitted that the staff had to hide for their safety, till the police could reach them. Deaths by oxygen shortage are by no means isolated instances. At Delhi’s Batra Hospital, 12 people died because the hospital’s oxygen supply was not replenished on time on May 1. One of those dead was a senior doctor being treated for Covid-19.
This oxygen crisis has persisted despite the Delhi high court and India’s Supreme Court hearing the matter on an urgent basis. Meanwhile, states have been in an ugly political tussle with the central government over oxygen allocation and supply.
It was only on May 5 that Delhi, for instance, received the full 700 metric tons of medical oxygen that it was allocated. The Delhi chief minister claims that if this oxygen supply can be sustained—and augmented to over 900 metric tons—he can add nearly 9,000 oxygenated beds for Covid-19 patients. Delhi also announced a website for booking oxygen cylinders for those in home isolation through proper government channels.
These measures have been too slow to come. Even now, Indians have had to stand in queues for hours to get oxygen cylinders filled, wait for the benevolence of strangers on social media, and risk getting duped by those in it to make a quick buck. And this is the story of India’s capital—one of the most developed cities in the country with some of the best health infrastructure.
But the city still does not have a Covid-19 war room, a crucial aspect of triaging cases and managing access to healthcare that states like Maharashtra and Kerala have been able to successfully implement. There is no single entity coordinating hospital admissions even today, and patients are left running around the city looking for beds or calling in favours.
Not only are steps like the oxygen website coming in with an undesirable lag, but the Indian government also has not recalibrated its priorities to take on this pandemic of unprecedented proportions head-on.
Till the last week of April, Indian states were in the grip of a feisty election, hotly contested particularly in the state of West Bengal. Since the start of the second wave of Covid-19, cases in Kolkata, the state’s capital, have shot up exponentially, taking test positivity rates as high as 50%.
But perhaps the largest toll of India’s elections came in the form of village-level polls in Uttar Pradesh. Teachers were forced to attend polling station duties, even if they were ill. Teachers’ unions have assessed that 700 such teachers—among them a pregnant woman—died because of this polling duty.
Religious events and polling aside, a large number of farmers are still camped at Delhi’s borders in protest against the Modi government’s farm laws.
The fear now is that as Covid-19 spreads to India’s villages, the lack of awareness about the disease and the poor mechanism of reporting deaths is going to spell catastrophe for large swathes of the population.
But the Indian government has other things on its plate.
India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar is currently in London for the G7 meeting but has now been forced to attend it virtually. Source-based reports say that two members from the Indian contingent tested positive for Covid-19, and sent the rest of the team into a forced quarantine in London. India is currently on the UK’s red list for travellers because of its current outbreak.
This is not a good look for a government that has been worried about the global perception of its pandemic response.
For instance, reacting to a news report published in The Australian newspaper, the Indian High Commission in Canberra said that it took exception to the report as being “completely baseless, malicious, and slanderous.” The news report directly blamed prime minister Narendra Modi for the “viral apocalypse.”
India’s information & broadcasting ministry also held a virtual workshop for officers to help them “create a positive image of the government,” according to a source-based report in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 5.
As if that weren’t enough, India’s foreign ministry had to sweep into action when it found out that embassies in India were sending out SOS calls for oxygen cylinders to members of the opposition party instead of the ministry. After Srinivas BV, an Indian Youth Congress leader, helped the embassy of the Philippines and the high commission of New Zealand in Delhi, the foreign ministry sent out a protocol document for how these emergencies should be handled. This included going through the ministry’s Covid Cell channel.
An investigation by news platform Article 14 revealed that the foreign ministry’s Covid Cell for diplomatic missions was reactivated—after it was initially set up in March 2020—only on May 1, after the SOS call from the Philippines embassy.
If that diplomatic embarrassment wasn’t enough, the Delhi high court asked the central government about why 3,000 oxygen concentrators, which came as part of foreign aid, were stuck at the customs, based on photographs circulated by newswires. India’s customs authority had to issue a clarification that no such consignment was stuck at the airport, and yet, if someone found said consignment, they should immediately alert the authority.
In a parallel universe, Indians continue to look for oxygen concentrators and cylinders on Google.