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Editorial: India’s ‘I can’t breathe’ moment
Of all the images that have become emblematic of India’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, the one that has ignited a firestorm over the past week is one involving an aerial view of a crematorium in New Delhi.
The image, stark in its depiction of the tragedy unfolding here, shows a stretch of land, with no space to spare as funeral pyres burn round the clock, with some of them extinguished, while some still burning. It is an image that should be seared into the subconscious of every Indian.
On Friday, India breached yet another grim statistic, recording over 3.3 lakh coronavirus cases, the highest single-day spike seen anywhere in the world, for a second consecutive day. The death toll also surged by a record of 2,263 cases over the last 24 hours. The surge in cases and fatalities has only been amplified by reports pertaining to accidental deaths of COVID-19 patients, which in most cases, could have been avoided if safety measures were adhered to. A fire that took place on Friday in the ICU of a hospital in Virar, on the outskirts of Mumbai, claimed as many as 13 patients. The mishap comes close on the heels of an incident when an interruption in the supply of oxygen to ventilators, during refilling of a storage tank in a Nashik facility, led to the death of 24 patients.
A similar situation played out in New Delhi where 25 critically ill patients admitted in one of the biggest private hospitals (with over 700 COVID patients), died over the last 24 hours. The patients were on high flow of oxygen in the hospital which had said that it had only an hour’s supply left, owing to which ventilators and Bipap machines were not performing up to the mark. It is amidst such stories of loss, that the Centre on Thursday directed states to ensure uninterrupted production and supply of medical oxygen as well as permitting inter-state transport of it. The decision was taken after a few states took it upon themselves to block the supply of oxygen to other states, in the wake of the sudden spike in COVID cases.
And in a move that could offer some respite to a nation where people are literally gasping for air, the Oxygen Express made its first run from Visakhapatnam to Maharashtra. The train is part of an initiative that will transport oxygen from steel plants to various parts of the country. While such measures taken by the government are certainly encouraging, they do beg the question: Couldn’t the Centre have handled the COVID situation in a much better manner, and have altogether avoided this human tragedy?
The oxygen shortage crisis, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with lower production or exports in FY21. The country produces as much as 7,500 metric tonnes of oxygen per day, of which 6,600 metric tonnes are being allocated to the states for medical use. Usually, medical facilities only required about 15% of the nation’s total supply, but owing to the second wave, the requirement is now 90%. However, uneven supply and logistical issues have contributed to some states running short of oxygen. For instance, Maharashtra currently requires more medical oxygen (1,500 to 1,600 tonnes a day) than its daily production capacity of 1,250 tonnes. Madhya Pradesh has no oxygen-making plants and relies on other states like Gujarat for its requirement of 250 tonnes every day. The Health Ministry had recently announced that 162 Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) plants will be installed in public health facilities in all states to augment oxygen capacity by 154.19 MT.
Having said that, what has clearly emerged during the pandemic is that India remains a reactive state and not a proactive one. This is not to lay the blame squarely at the government’s door, but those who have lost their loved ones in this avoidable catastrophe will find it hard to remain equanimous, especially in such times when every breath is precious.
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