New Delhi, India – On Saturday afternoon, 12 coronavirus patients died at New Delhi’s Batra Hospital after it ran out of medical oxygen. Among the dead was Dr RK Himthani, head of the gastroenterology unit at the same hospital.
The private hospital in southern Delhi was among several in the Indian capital and across India to sound an alarm over a crippling oxygen shortage as they struggle to cope with patients pouring in, needing ventilators and ICU beds.
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For the past week, Batra Hospital’s administration said they had been facing the same shortage, but oxygen arrived minutes before running out. On Saturday they ran out of luck.
‘There came no help’
Batra Hospital’s Executive Director Dr Sudhanshu Bankata told Al Jazeera they raised the first SOS alarm at approximately 7am on Saturday, but “there came no help from anywhere”.
As the day progressed, the oxygen levels in the critical care wards kept plummeting.
Doctors and paramedical staff in the ICU, located on the fifth floor of the hospital in southern Delhi, went to work with “ambu bags” (manual resuscitators) to keep the patients alive, fighting against time.
“It was a chaotic situation,” said one doctor who did not want to reveal his identity over fears of reparation. “There was panic all around.”
He said the hospital staff also had to push back desperate family members forcing their way into the ICU, concerned about their ill loved ones after they heard the oxygen supply was dwindling.
Meanwhile, Bankata put out a video appeal on Twitter, saying the hospital was using one oxygen cylinder which would not last more than 10 minutes.
Around noon, the hospital ran out of oxygen for more than an hour, killing a dozen patients in the ICU, including Himthani.
It was the second such incident in the national capital since a ferocious second wave of COVID-19 hit India earlier this month.
On April 23, at least 26 patients died in the city’s Jaipur Golden Hospital when the oxygen supply in its critical care units ran out.
“The allocated quota (of oxygen) is severely less than what Delhi has asked for,” Bankata told Al Jazeera.
Centre, Delhi gov’t spar over oxygen
By quota, Bankata meant the distribution of medical oxygen by the federal government to the states, including Delhi.
“Yesterday, Delhi received 440 MT (metric tonnes) of oxygen which is lower than the allocated quota of 590 MT. We need 976 MT oxygen daily as we are increasing the number of beds,” Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told reporters on Monday.
Last week, the frequent pleas for oxygen by Delhi hospitals triggered a verbal face-off between the central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Delhi government of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
On April 24, Kejriwal livestreamed his plea to Modi for oxygen during a virtual meeting called by the prime minister with some chief ministers. A miffed Modi accused Kejriwal of “breaking the protocol” by making public the developments in an “in-house meeting”.
On Saturday, the Delhi High Court, in a sharp reprimand, directed the central government to ensure that hospitals in the capital are provided with an adequate supply of oxygen. Modi’s government, instead of complying, moved an application urging the court to recall its order.
The High Court on Monday asked the centre to reply to the Delhi government’s request to hand over the supply and distribution of oxygen to the armed forces.
Meanwhile, a joint statement by 13 prominent opposition leaders on Sunday asked the central government to “focus all attention in ensuring the uninterrupted flow of oxygen supplies to all hospitals and health centres across the country”.
It is a grave situation. The Modi government must act. Our joint call for immediate action 👇🏾 pic.twitter.com/OY7YRbGDAQ
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) May 2, 2021
The leaders also demanded an “immediate launch” of a “free mass vaccination programme across the country”.
“It is a grave situation. The Modi government must act,” tweeted Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Sitaram Yechury.
Meanwhile, social media continued to act as a helpline for desperate people seeking oxygen or hospital beds for their infected family members.
Some did not make it.
Harbhajan Singh lost his 64-year-old wife Kawaljeet Kaur at Batra Hospital when it ran out of oxygen on Saturday.
“I had told my kids that if we send her to the hospital, she will not return alive. And that is exactly what has happened. She was talking till yesterday and today she is gone,” Singh told Al Jazeera outside the hospital, struggling to maintain composure.
“My wife died because we did not get any help.”
Himthani’s friends also say they don’t hold the virus responsible for his death, rather that it was the government that failed to provide him with oxygen as he lay on his hospital bed, gasping for air.
“We lost a cheerful and smiling face … not because of the virus but due to LACK OF OXYGEN,” tweeted his colleague Dr Tushar Mehta.
When contacted by Al Jazeera for his comments on Himthani’s death, Mehta said: “He died because of lack of oxygen. Whose job is to provide oxygen?”