No government support or data of COVID patients dying at home in national Capital for lack of oxygen

The Delhi government has acknowledged in Delhi High Court that it has not considered the need of individuals in their allocation while raising the demand for oxygen

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Ashlin Mathew

Even as the Delhi High Court has been hearing petitions on the oxygen shortage in hospitals in Delhi, there is no government data on the number of patients in home isolation who require oxygen supply or those who have died at home due to lack of oxygen supply.

Citizens are running around to source oxygen from around the city. Almost every second appeal on social media networks is for oxygen, even more than medicines.

In the last two weeks, while counsels for various big and small hospitals such as Ganga Ram, Batra Hospital, Max group, MD City, Jaipur Golden etc have moved Delhi HC to ensure oxygen supplies to hospitals, there has been no governmental support for those gasping for breath at home. This is so even though there are more than 50,742 people in home isolation for COVID-19 as of May 2, 2021.

According to Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, All India institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, about 15% of those who have tested positive require oxygen therapy. This translates into more than 7,500 people who are in home isolation in need for oxygen therapy.

The actual numbers will be much higher because thousands of people have not been able to get tested for COVID and in several cases patients who have COVID-19 symptoms have got false negative results.

“It should not be this way. Citizens should not have to struggle for their lives. At least some of deaths due to shortage of oxygen supply in hospitals make it to the news, but we don’t know the number of deaths at home due to oxygen shortage. Those numbers are not even included in the health bulletin. The bulletin includes only the deaths in hospitals,” said a pulmonologist working in a government hospital in the capital.

While social Media has been able to amplify requests of the upper middle class, there has been an almost complete lack of help for low-income and below poverty line families.

On May 2, Delhi recorded 20,394 Covid-19 positive cases and a positivity rate of 28.33%, which means that almost every third person who is getting tested for COVID-19 turns out to be positive.

With the rising number of cases, the demand for oxygen to be administered at home has exceeded the limited resources in the national Capital. The demand and scarcity have led to the creation of a black market, in addition to sky-rocketing prices.

“Earlier, 10 litre to 15 litre cylinders would cost between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,500 and a refill Rs 250. Now, a refill is around Rs 4,000 and a cylinder costs Rs 35,000. A 50-litre cylinder did not cost more than Rs 7,500, but now the rate is almost 10 times. I do not charge for refilling. Ever since both Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have stopped industries from supplying oxygen to Delhi, there has been a severe shortage in supply. I have just barely managed to get it from other states. Most of the time, the oxygen

supply in my shop ends before noon and we begin around 7 am,” said an oxygen supplier in south Delhi who did not want to be identified.

Acknowledging the problem, Avik Roy, a volunteer who manages a database to verify COVID resources such as medicines, oxygen supply and hospital beds, said, “It is close to impossible to get a cylinder now. Almost all the places which had cylinders have dried up. Refill stations have opened up and they too run only for a few hours. The shortage is heart-breaking. There is no government helpline for oxygen supply in Delhi and that worsens the situation. Now, people are scrambling to get oxygen cans, which helps only for acclimatisation.”

The demand is rising along with cases, and outstripping supply. There have been no signs of the situation letting up for the last three weeks.

GS Gill, a Naraina industrialist, has been running another volunteer programme along with his friends to help those who need oxygen therapy in lower-income neighbourhoods in his area. “I donated 50 oxygen cylinders to people in the area. I get around 150 calls a day, of which 80 are for oxygen cylinders or for refilling cylinders. A few of us friends verify numbers of various oxygen suppliers to ensure that they are not cheating those in need,” said Gill.

Running such a volunteer programme of a slightly larger scale is Vipul Pandhi, former north India vice president of Event and Entertainment Management Association. He set up a 24/7 oxygen helpline with 40-people four days ago.

“We have volunteers who work in shifts to attend phone calls. There is another team verifying leads on the ground and another team which is stationed at various refilling units. We got more than 1,150 calls on the first day, which means a call every 2-3 minutes. In three days, we got

more than 3,200 calls only for oxygen. This highlights the magnitude of the problem. In the absence of any government helpline, we are doing what we can,” explained Pandhi.

Once you are on Pandhi’s list, every hour an update is sent on where oxygen can he found and where the refilling has stopped.

According to Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary, Union Mnistry of Health and Family Welfare, of the country’s oxygen supply - 7,500 metric tonnes daily - healthcare facilities use about 15%, leaving the rest for industrial use. But during the COVID-19 wave in 2021, 90% is being diverted for medical use.

Despite the dire situation for oxygen on the ground, the Delhi government has acknowledged that it has not considered the need of individuals in their allocation while raising the demand for oxygen.

“There were arguments in the Delhi High Court about providing oxygen supply to help people who are stranded at home due to lack of availability of beds. It was left unresolved at the hearing because Delhi, at the moment, is not receiving adequate oxygen supply for those in hospitals. The allocation to Delhi was 490 metric tonnes, which it seems was raised to 590 MT. But Delhi's requirement just for hospitals and nursing homes is at least 700 MT, as submitted by the Delhi Government,” said Malini Aisola of the All India Drug Action Network.

“Hospitals are on the brink and there are constant SOS appeals. Hospitals are raising requests for oxygen in the courtroom routinely, every day, as though this courtroom is a helpline,” underlined Aisola.

On April 27, the Delhi High Court had observed, "It looks like the oxygen for the hospitals will have to be reduced for some time to accommodate the individual citizens in home care.” The Delhi government had responded, “It’s a Catch-22 situation. Someone will have to lose out for another to get oxygen.”

On April 29, 2021, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted in the Delhi High Court that the existing demand for oxygen supply was 704 MT per day for hospital. This did not take into account the oxygen requirement to treat patients at home.

“Unfortunately, the issue of oxygen for individuals has not even been addressed. This is completely unresolved. There was an idea, earlier, to create a separate distribution system for oxygen for non-hospitalised patients, but it hasn’t even come close to that yet,” said Aisola.

Earlier oxygen cylinders belonging to people were being seized and those crossing state borders were being stopped. But the court directed that medicines and oxygen cannot be seized from the patients even if they are a result of black-marketing.

“The Court has directed that cylinders should not be they can be seized from patients or their attendants. Even cylinders seized from black marketeers have to be released for use of patients. The investigation can go on the basis of photographs. The massive scarcity of oxygen for those at home remains a concern,” said Aisola..

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