Oxygen supplies run low as India grapples with coronavirus storm

The suspected gunman
The suspected gunman

Indian authorities scrambled to shore up supplies of medical oxygen to hospitals in the capital, Delhi, on Wednesday as a fast-spreading second wave of coronavirus stretched medical infrastructure to breaking point, officials and doctors said.

India, the world’s second-most populous country, is reporting the world’s highest number of new daily cases and approaching a peak of about 297,000 cases in one day that the United States hit in January.

Delhi’s government issued a call for help on social media saying major government hospitals only had enough oxygen to last another eight to 24 hours while some private ones had enough for just four or five hours.

One hospital, the GTB hospital, got some oxygen supplies just before it was going to run out of stocks for its 500 patients, media reported.

“We had almost lost hope. All of us were in tears when we saw the oxygen tanker arrive,” one relieved doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told India Today.

At least 22 patients died on Wednesday in a hospital in western India after a disruption to their oxygen supply caused by a leaking tank, the health minister said, as a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases soaks up supplies of the gas.

The incident in the city of Nashik, one of India’s worst-hit areas, happened after the tank of oxygen leaked, said Rajesh Tope, the health minister of Maharashtra, the richest state, where the city is located.

“Patients who were on ventilators at the hospital in Nashik have died,” Tope said in televised remarks.

“The leakage was spotted at the tank supplying oxygen to these patients. The interrupted supply could be linked to the deaths of the patients in the hospital.”

The world’s second most populous nation reported 295,041 new infections on Wednesday – the biggest daily rise reported in any country – stretching its hospitals to breaking point, officials said.

Only the United States had a slightly higher one-day rise of 297,430 cases in January, though its tally has since fallen sharply. India’s 2,023 deaths were also its highest in the pandemic.

Adding to the sense of alarm, the Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the AstraZeneca (AZN.L) COVID-19 vaccine, said it will be able to raise its monthly output to 100 million doses by July from 60-70 million now, later than its previous timeline of end-May.

The city of 20 million recorded 28,395 new cases and 277 deaths on Tuesday, its highest since the pandemic began. Every third person tested for coronavirus was found positive, the state government said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India faced a coronavirus “storm” overwhelming its health system.

“Oxygen demand has increased. We are working with speed and sensitivity to ensure oxygen to all those who need it. The centre, states and private companies, all are working together,” Modi said in a televised address to the country on Tuesday evening.

Modi faces criticism that his administration lowered its guard when coronavirus infections fell to a multi-month low in February and allowed religious festivals and political rallies, some of which he addressed to go ahead.

“The situation was manageable until a few weeks ago. The second wave of infections has come like a storm,” Modi said in his address, urging citizens to stay indoors and not panic amid India’s worst health emergency in memory.

India has launched a vaccination campaign but only a tiny fraction of its population has received shots.

Delhi is under a six-day lockdown to try and stem the transmission. The western state of Maharashtra, home to the financial capital Mumbai, also plans to impose a stringent lockdown this week to try to halt the rise in cases, the cabinet said.

Modi ordered a tough lockdown of India’s 1.3 billion people when the coronavirus was detected last year but his government has always been wary of the huge economic costs of tough restrictions.

He said on Tuesday a lockdown should only be a last resort.

The delay could slow India’s immunisation drive, which the government has opened for all adults from next month to try to stem the deadly second wave.

Hospitals in Delhi, the capital, and elsewhere have been warning that their supplies of medical oxygen that are given to severely ill COVIOD-19 patients are running low as cases pour in.

Max Healthcare, the largest private sector healthcare provider in Delhi and its suburbs, said some of its hospitals had barely two hours’ worth of oxygen left.

“For the last few days the hospital has been facing serious difficulties in procuring adequate and regular supplies of oxygen,” it said in a statement.

“Presently, most of the hospitals in the network are working on dangerously low levels of oxygen supply, which can lead to a very serious adverse patient incident,” Max said.

Television showed images of people with empty oxygen cylinders crowding refilling facilities in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, as they scrambled to save stricken relatives in hospital.

The situation was so severe that some people had tried to loot an oxygen tanker, forcing authorities to beef up security, said the health minister of the northern state of Haryana.

“From now, I’ve ordered police protection for all tankers,” Anil Vij told Reuters partner ANI.

LOWERING THE GUARD

Health experts said India had let its guard down when the virus seemed to be under control during the winter, allowing big gatherings such as weddings and festivals.

India now faces a coronavirus “storm” overwhelming its health system, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a national address overnight, adding that authorities were working with states and private firms to deliver oxygen with “speed and sensitivity”.

Modi is himself facing criticism for addressing packed political rallies for local elections and allowing a religious festival to go ahead in which millions take a ritual bathe in the river Ganges, considered sacred by Hindus.

India has so far administered nearly 130 million doses of vaccine, the most in the world after the United States and China but still small relative to its population of 1.35 billion people.

Vaccine doses have already run short in many states though inoculations are currently restricted to frontline workers and those aged above 45.

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