Hospitals in Delhi continued to send desperate messages for emergency oxygen supplies through the night on Sunday, warning that patients are at risk.
The crisis started two weeks ago but shows no signs of abating.
At least 12 patients, including a doctor, died when a prominent hospital ran out of oxygen on Saturday. Outside hospitals, families of patients who can’t find a bed are struggling to get hold of portable cylinders – sometimes standing in queues for up to 12 hours.
Several big hospitals in Delhi are relying on daily oxygen supplies but they are not getting enough to keep some as backup in case of emergency.
One doctor described the situation as frightening, explaining: “Once you’ve used up your main tank, there is nothing to fall back on.”
The situation is worse still in small hospitals that don’t have storage tanks and have to rely on big cylinders.
And the oxygen crisis comes as coronavirus cases continue to surge.
Delhi alone reported more than 20,000 new infections and 407 deaths on Sunday.
‘It’s a battle every day’
Dr Gautam Singh, who runs the Shri Ram Singh hospital, says he has 50 Covid beds and space for 16 ICU patients, but has had to refuse admissions as there is no guarantee of oxygen supply.
He has put out a number of SOS calls in the past few days, getting oxygen just in time to avoid disaster.
“It’s a battle we are fighting every day,” he says. “Half of my hospital staff are on the road with cylinders to get them filled every day, going from one place to another.”
Dr Singh says the possibility of patients dying without oxygen in the hospital stops him from sleeping.
“I should be concentrating on treating my patients, and not running around to get oxygen,” he says.
Other hospital owners are also facing the same ordeal.
One woman whose family runs a hospital in Delhi says there was no coordination among the authorities when the crisis started.
“For those few days, we had no idea who was the relevant person to contact and who had the authority to resolve the issue,” she recalls.
She says the situation is “slightly better now” but there is still uncertainty over the supply which is affecting their ability to admit more patients.
“Each time someone reaches out asking if I have a lead for an oxygen bed, I feel terrible saying no because I don’t.”
SOS calls from hospitals, particularly small ones that rely on cylinders and don’t have a storage tank, come almost every day.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has repeatedly said that the city was not getting enough oxygen from the federal government, which allocates oxygen quotas to states.
Federal officials say there is no shortage of oxygen, but that the challenge has come from transportation.
Delhi’s high court on Saturday said “enough is enough”.
“You [the government] have to arrange everything now. You have made the allocations. You have to fulfil it,” it said.
‘People are paying the price’
But the situation on the ground is still dire.
“People are paying a price for the political wrangling between the state and federal government. Sometimes the price is their life,” one analyst said.
Families who have managed to find a bed are also under extreme stress because of the uncertainty over oxygen supplies.
The last 48 hours have been excruciating for Altaf Shamsi.
He and his entire family tested positive for Covid-19 last week.
His pregnant wife became seriously ill and had to be moved to a hospital where she gave birth to a girl on Friday. A few hours after a complicated birth, she had to be put on a ventilator, where she remains in a critical condition.
Altaf was then told that his father had died in another hospital, while at the same time the hospital where his wife and baby are in an ICU said it was running out of oxygen.
The hospital eventually got a day’s worth of emergency supply, but Altaf is worried about issues arising again.
“Who knows what will happen tomorrow?” he says.