Thursday, December 7, 2023

What brought India to the ongoing oxygen crisis?


India is witnessing the rampaging second wave of Covid-19 pandemic that is not only infecting people and taking lives but also showing the loopholes of India’s healthcare system, policymaking, and governance. The oxygen crisis is an issue that has taken the lives of nearly 200 Covid-19 patients in the last two weeks alone. What brought the country to this situation and what could be the solution?

If 2020 was about losing jobs and livelihoods, 2021 has brought the challenge towards living life. India has become the new epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic with a devastating second wave that has been raging the country from north to south, east to west, cities to villages. The rampaging second wave of the pandemic has taken the daily Covid infections to a record 412,262 new cases and 3,980 deaths on May 6, 2021; taking the total number of infected people to more than 21 million and the overall death toll to 230,168, as the Union Health Ministry data has revealed.

In this scenario, one thing must be noted. The devastation that India is witnessing today because of the second wave of Covid-19, is not just because of the rates of infections and the virulence of the disease, but perhaps because of the scarcity of life-saving resources such as medicines, and of course the oxygen, something we have always taken for granted until now.

The situation has become so severe, that not just individual patients or their friends or families, but even the hospitals have started issuing SOS calls on social media. Several hospitals have even moved courts asking for their oxygen supply to be replenished on an emergency basis. Various state governments, too, have pointed fingers both at each other and at the central government, blaming them for blocking oxygen supplies. In the midst of all this chaos, the patients are the ones who are suffering.

At least 178 Covid-19 patients have died in India because of the oxygen crisis in recent weeks.

In the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports of Covid-19 patients dying not of the disease itself, but because they were unable to get the oxygen support even after being admitted to the hospital. In recent weeks, at least 178 Covid-19 patients have died because of the oxygen crisis. Another 70 deaths have been attributed to the oxygen crisis by the deceased’s families, however, these claims have been denied by the authorities.

Covid-19 deaths in India rising the fastest in the world.

~ Johns Hopkins University

According to the data revealed by Johns Hopkins University, Covid-19 deaths in India rising the fastest in the world. New deaths increased by 143% in the subcontinent compared to three and four weeks ago and a lion’s share in attributed to India. As the study says, out of all the countries with more than 25 daily average deaths due to the Covid-19, the death toll in India rose the quickest in the last 14 days.

India currently has an oxygen generating capacity of nearly 7,300 MT every day.

Overall, while the select areas like Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, and several other cities have been hardest hit so far, limited public healthcare, including a scarcity of testing facilities, along with the ongoing oxygen crisis is becoming a grave threat in the rural areas that are home to nearly 70% of the 1.3 billion population of the country. In short, the situation is too grim and could become even severe in the coming days amidst the speculation of a coming third wave.

Oxygen demand in India’s healthcare sector has increased to nearly 21,000 tons in just two weeks.

Now, focusing on the oxygen crisis, what has caused the current shortage, and moving ahead, what is going to be the solution?

Oxygen crisis
A major cause behind the oxygen crisis is the shortage of cryogenic tanks.

Oxygen crisis and solutions

According to healthcare experts, India currently has an oxygen generating capacity of nearly 7,300 MT every day. Out of this, 10% (730 MT) is medical-grade oxygen. However, until April 15, the Indian government maintained that the country’s daily oxygen production capacity was 7,127 MT. On April 30, however, the government told the Supreme Court that the daily oxygen production had gone up to 9,000 MT, which is likely because the steel plants ramped up production from 1,000 MT to 2,600 MT in the first 21 days of April 2021, according to the government’s court affidavit.

Three sectors allowed to use oxygen alongside the healthcare sector:
1.Ampules and vials
3.Defence forces

As experts say, in the pre-Covid era, the country’s demand for medical-grade oxygen was approximately 700 tons per day. During the first Covid-19 wave, there was a maximum demand of 3,000 tons per day from the healthcare sector, which has now surged by seven times in this second wave of the pandemic within a short period of just two weeks.

Rather than production, the root of the current oxygen crisis lies in the logistics challenge.

While the production might not be that tough considering the country’s industrial capacity, transportation of liquid oxygen is becoming a problem, which is leading to the oxygen crisis. At present, besides the medical-grade oxygen suppliers, various industries like steel are diverting their resources to produce and supply oxygen to the healthcare sector. Only three sectors are allowed to use oxygen apart from the healthcare sector. These are – ampules and vials, pharmaceuticals, and defence forces.

The majority of the oxygen plants in India are located in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country. Hence, quick transportation and delivery of oxygen to the Northern and Western regions is becoming a logistical challenge. Another additional challenge is the shortage of cryogenic tanks. Clearly, volume production is not the issue here, but transportation is.

Also, while the oxygen crisis witnessed in April 2021 appears to have been caused by the real demand exceeding the projected demand, besides logistics worsening the problem, future oxygen shortages could be due to a production constraint, if necessary steps are not taken in a manner like wartime situation.

Hence, in an attempt to offset the shortage of life-saving oxygen amidst these challenging times and to avoid a similar oxygen crisis in case there is a third wave of the pandemic, a multi-pronged approach should be taken by the government and authorities.

  1. Repurposing the industrial oxygen to medical-grade oxygen to ramp up production and supply.
  2. Optimize oxygen usage.
  3. Increasing the fleet of cryogenic tankers across the country.
  4. Creating green corridors for transporting oxygen tankers.
  5. Creating emergency oxygen storage facilities within 30 minutes reach of the hospitals.
  6. Setting up onsite Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) oxygen plants at the hospitals.
  7. Creating oxygen banks at each major city.
  8. Devising emergency oxygen policy on priority to prepare for the third wave of Covid-19.

Also Read: Is India facing another healthcare crisis amidst an oxygen shortage?

Team AFT
Team AFT
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