Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside a Delhi hospital, oxygen runs fatally short as covid cases mount

People console a relative of a person who died of the coronavirus in New Delhi on April 24. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

NEW DELHI — As night fell, the full desperation of the hospital's plight became clear. Its oxygen supply was running out, and no help was coming.

Ravinder Kumar has worked at Jaipur Golden Hospital in India’s capital for nearly three decades. All through Friday, he and the other members of the staff called everyone they could think of — oxygen vendors, other hospitals, the police, city officials — in a frantic search for a fresh supply.

“It was as if the entire city was looking for oxygen,” said Kumar, 55. “I have never felt so helpless in my whole life.” Around 10 p.m., as the hospital’s tanks neared empty, the oxygen pressure dropped, disrupting the flow needed for severely ill patients. Within a couple of hours, 26 of them died, Kumar said.

The deaths marked a grim new turn in India’s battle with a devastating second wave of coronavirus cases. The country reported more than 346,786 new cases on Saturday, the third consecutive day of record-breaking infections. More than 2,600 people died, although experts say that figure is a vast undercount.

Experts believe that the influence of new variants, changes in people’s behavior and complacency on the part of the government have combined to produce a tidal wave of cases.

The stunning speed of the surge has overwhelmed hospitals and left the nation reeling. Critically ill coronavirus patients are being turned away because of a lack of hospital beds. Crematoriums in some cities are running day and night as deaths increase.

The demand for oxygen has skyrocketed, especially in Delhi, now the country’s worst-hit city. For days, officials and hospitals have warned that oxygen supplies were running dangerously low. Several hospitals announced that they would temporarily stop admitting patients because of the shortage. Hospitals have issued appeals on social media, saying they were just hours from disaster.

India marked a grim milestone in the covid-19 pandemic on April 22, reporting 314,835 new daily cases, the highest one-day tally anywhere. (Video: Reuters)

“Urgent sos help,” Moolchand Healthcare, a private hospital chain, tweeted in a message to India’s government Saturday. “We have less than 2 hours of oxygen supply @Moolchand_Hosp. We are desperate. . . . Have over 135 COVID pt [patients] with many on life support.”

Indian authorities said they are commandeering trains and using air force planes to speed up the distribution of medical supplies to hard-hit regions. Countries including Germany and Singapore are sending oxygen storage and manufacturing equipment to India.

As pandemic surges anew, global envy and anger over U.S. vaccine abundance

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a nationwide address this past week that the second wave had hit the country “like a storm” and “every effort” is being made to increase oxygen supplies.

Yet the crisis continues. On Saturday, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s top elected official, pleaded with other states to provide the city with oxygen — if they had any to spare. The severity of the outbreak is “such that all available resources are proving inadequate,” he wrote on Twitter.

Late Saturday night, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, one of the largest private hospitals in the city, issued its fourth emergency appeal for oxygen in 24 hours. Alarms were beginning to ring on ventilators, a hospital spokesman said in a statement, and staff members were starting to resort to manual ventilation. On Friday, 25 critically ill patients died at the same hospital.

Hospitals in Delhi say oxygen supplies are arriving just as they’re about to run out — but only enough to last for the next few hours. Batra Hospital, where more than 300 coronavirus patients are on oxygen support, received a fresh shipment of 1,500 liters of liquid oxygen at about 5 p.m. Saturday — enough to last about six hours, said S.C.L. Gupta, the hospital’s medical director. What will happen after that, “God only knows,” he said.

A number of increasingly desperate hospitals petitioned the Delhi High Court to compel the authorities to ensure oxygen deliveries. It’s a “severe crisis,” said Sachin Datta, the lawyer representing Jaipur Golden Hospital. “If the supply is not met, there might be further loss of lives.”

Jaipur Golden’s predicament began this past week, when its main oxygen vendor said it was unable to provide uninterrupted supply because of the huge spike in demand, said Kumar, a senior manager at the hospital. On Friday at 1 p.m., Kumar said, he called a senior city health official. “I told him plainly that people will die if oxygen is not sent quickly,” Kumar said.

Later that night, coronavirus patients began dying in the hospital’s intensive and critical care units. Around midnight, with the help of police and other officials, a nearby government-run hospital diverted some of its supply to Jaipur Golden. It took another hour to fill the tanks and maintain the desired pressure, Kumar said.

The hospital still has not received enough supplies at a time to last more than half a day. Even after losing so many patients, “we are not sure if we can avoid a repeat of a similar situation,” he said.

For relatives of those who have died, there is immense anguish — and anger. Atul Kapoor, a 40-year-old businessman, was being treated in the hospital’s intensive care unit but had showed signs of improvement in recent days, said Aman Joshi, his brother-in-law.

Joshi said the family learned about what happened on the news. They rushed to the hospital, where they were told that Kapoor had died. Hours later, Joshi broke down as he contemplated his brother-in-law’s final moments.

“He didn’t die of coronavirus. He was murdered,” Joshi said. “It is a complete collapse, as if there is no one running the country.”

Irfan reported from Srinagar. Niha Masih in New Delhi and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.