Deaths Due to Oxygen Crisis: What Govts Could’ve Done, But Didn’t

Lives lost due to oxygen shortage in a COVID-ravaged India could have been saved, had our governments acted on time.

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The lives lost due to oxygen shortage in a COVID-ravaged India could have been saved, if only our governments had been proactive. Here are seven things that Modi government and the respective states governments could have done, but didn't, to stop the deaths.

Where Are the COVID-19 War Rooms?

In March 2020, the Modi govt invoked the Disaster Management Act, which gives absolute power to the Centre. But even a month after the deadly second wave hit India, neither the Centre nor some of the worst-affected states, including Delhi and UP, have a formal COVID war room to trace, assess, triage and medicate. The Health Ministry said a central group is coordinating with the state, but the continuing SOS messages from hospitals tell a different story.

What About Aarogya Setu and CoWIN?

Moreover, what stops the state governments in creating resource dashboards or the Centre from modifying its existing nationwide portals, like Aarogya Setu and CoWIN, that already have data of crores of citizens, to provide information on available hospitals, oxygen cylinders, ICU beds, and critical medicines in and around one’s home?

So, a person in an emergency situation could simply go to a nationally-monitored and updated digital portal and find the resource he is looking for instead of making hundreds of panic-calls and tweeting out SOS messages. Suppliers and hospitals, too, can update the status of available resources on the same site. I understand this could take time. But, the fact is, we had the time – one whole year. Even now, we see no intent of using Aarogya Setu or CoWIN imaginatively during this crisis.

Central Task Force That Rarely Meets

The fact that the Centre-headed task force did not meet even once during February and March 2021 reflects the lack of proactiveness in the government. The task force, comprising leading scientists of the country, is supposed to advise the central government on its response to the pandemic. According to a Caravan report, the task force met in January and then on 15 and 21 April, long after the country’s struggle with the deadly second surge started.

What About ‘Made-in-India’ Ventilators From PMCARES Fund?

In July 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said that COVID hospitals would receive 50,000 'Made-in-India' ventilators through the PMCARES (Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund. But after that, there has been no clarity or transparency on the number of ventilators that were actually installed and are working under this plan.

Ramping up Health Infrastructure? We Slowed Down

While the government ramped up COVID-specific facilities during the first wave, data analysis by IndiaSpend showed the pace of adding COVID-ready hospitals and health centres slowed after September 2020. Some facilities were shut down. And some that stayed open, were mostly equipped with non-oxygen beds. But then, why the delay in ramping up the facilities again when the cases started surging? It is only now that Centre is opening Army-controlled health facilities, and states are scrambling to increase the number of oxygen-care beds.

Why Zero Planning on Transportation and Distribution of Oxygen?

After exporting twice the amount of industrial oxygen, which could have been repurposed for medical use, the Modi government has now floated an emergency import tender for 50,000 metric tonnes of oxygen. It is not clear when the imports will reach the country.

But, even if this oxygen does reach us shortly, the real bottleneck would be in the transportation and distribution of oxygen. Today, there is excess oxygen at a steel plant in Jharkhand. But there are not enough cryogenic tankers to transport that oxygen to the states which need it. This is why hospitals in Delhi-NCR are facing a crunch of oxygen supply, even days after the Centre increased its oxygen quota. The Railways, which is helping with ‘Oxygen Express’ trains, have clearly stated that the oxygen tankers have to be provided by the states. While cash-rich states like Maharashtra or Delhi may find tankers, how will states with fewer resources manage? And why was this logistical bottleneck not planned for before?

Why the Delay in Building Oxygen Plants?

Out of 162 on-site oxygen units to be built in various district hospitals, only 33 were built over a period of 7 months. Who’s to blame? Mainly the Central government. A central agency, under the Health Ministry, was coordinating with multiple vendors for the setting up the 162 oxygen plants. It’s clear that this agency looked away. As a result, states like UP and Delhi, struggling under the second surge, have only one out of the many sanctioned oxygen plants, with no one ready to shoulder the blame.

While the central government was primarily responsible for the 162 plants, it must also be noted that nothing stopped the states from commissioning their own oxygen plants. Each plant costs about Rs 2 crore. But many reacted late. Madhya Pradesh waited for COVID cases to rise from 4,000 to 40,000 in April, before ordering oxygen plants for 13 district hospitals.

Now, even the Centre has announced 551 new oxygen plants for district hospitals. These will take weeks, if not months, to be commissioned. For those dead, it is all too late.

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