An already overstretched healthcare system in India is taking a further beating with the shortage of medical oxygen, a key tool in the management of the Covid-19 disease, hitting several hospitals. Over the last one week, many patients have died due to the unavailability of oxygen, a sad reflection on the state of affairs. As the patients have been gasping for breath, the Centre appears clueless while some States are resorting to ugly sparring over supply of oxygen tankers, making a mockery of the spirit of cooperative federalism. The oxygen crisis has exposed the systemic lacunae in the management of one of the extremely crucial components of the healthcare sector. It has also laid bare the lack of coordination among the States. In the national capital and a few other States, hospitals are currently operating on the edge due to acute oxygen shortage. The Supreme Court has rightly pulled up the Centre for lack of proper planning and a national policy on the matter. The virulent second wave is playing havoc with public health. The official data has revealed that a significant 54.5% of the total hospital admissions during the second wave required supplemental oxygen during treatment. During the first wave, the demand for liquid medical oxygen (LMO) increased from 700 tonnes per day (TPD) to 2,800 TPD. But, during the second wave, it has skyrocketed to 5,000 TPD. The Centre should have heeded the early warnings given by experts about a possible second wave that could be more infectious and dangerous.
At present, India produces more than 7,000 tonnes of liquid oxygen per day, which is enough to support the current requirement of medical oxygen. However, uneven supply and logistical issues have led to the crisis in some States. The States that are in the grip of the sharpest surge in cases are bearing the brunt of the oxygen crisis. Adding to the woes, the logistical issues in supplying oxygen have become a major concern for companies that manufacture liquid oxygen. Round-the-clock availability of cryogenic tankers, used for transporting oxygen, is difficult given the fact that many hospitals are facing a shortage at the same time. The shortage of such tankers has led to a significant delay in inter-State transportation of oxygen from manufacturers to hospitals. A more decentralised availability would have saved time and energy. There is also an urgent need to ramp up the manufacture of cryogenic tanks. If the chain of the infections is not broken by the end of May, India could witness a much more alarming oxygen crisis. Be it oxygen, medicines or vaccines, the Centre can’t afford to let the bureaucratic laxity derail the country’s battle against the virus.