Delhi hospitals issue SOS alerts over oxygen supplies as India’s Covid crisis mounts

Hospitals in Delhi issued SOS alerts on Friday morning, warning they had just a few hours supply of oxygen left, as another unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases overwhelmed health systems in major Indian cities.

Hospital staff posted emergency messages on social media throughout Thursday and Friday, saying they were unable to cope with demand and pleading for assistance from government.

Ganga Ram hospital in Delhi, which is treating more than 500 Covid patients, said 25 people had died on its wards over the previous 24 hours, and warned of an impending crisis.

“Oxygen will last another two hours. Ventilators and Bipap [breathing support machine] not working effectively. Resorting to manual ventilation in ICUs and Emergency. Major crisis likely. Lives of another 60 sickest patients at risk, need urgent intervention,” the hospital said in a statement on Friday morning. Tankers arrived at the hospital with oxygen two hours later.

The provider Max Healthcare also posted an SOS message on Twitter warning that it had less than an hour’s oxygen supplies at two of its hospitals, while, on Thursday night, Fortis Healthcare said that its hospital in Haryana had “only 45 minutes of oxygen left”. Fortis urged the authorities to allow an oxygen tanker from Bhiwadi, south of the capital, to reach its hospital.

As infections have pushed hospitals to breaking point, some areas have been accused of blocking tankers of oxygen from reaching neighbouring states.

Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia wrote to the health minister on Thursday to warn that supply at six private hospitals had run out entirely. He accused police and senior officials in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana of blocking tankers carrying oxygen and delaying supplies.

Steel plants, which produce oxygen, are ramping up manufacturing to try to meet demand. On Thursday night, a train, dubbed the “Oxygen Express”, began its first journey from a steel facility in Andhra Pradesh carrying seven tankers each loaded with 15 tonnes of liquid medical oxygen.

The virus has spread with unprecedented speed in India, with health experts blaming lax measures, political failings and a more infectious variant. On Friday morning, India reported another record-breaking daily case load of 332,348 in the previous 24 hours. It followed news on Thursday that India had registered the highest number of infections in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic.

On Friday morning, nearly 2,250 new deaths were also announced.

A man walks past burning funeral pyres of people, who died from Covid.
A man walks past burning funeral pyres of people, who died from Covid. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The crisis has pushed India’s fragile health system to the brink. In the western state of Maharashtra, among the worst hit areas, thirteen Covid patients died after a fire broke out at a hospital in the outskirts of Mumbai in the early hours of Friday morning. Earlier this week, 22 Covid patients died at another hospital in the same state when the oxygen supply to their ventilators was disrupted by a leak.

Television and social media footage from across the country showed chaotic scenes outside overcrowded hospitals, with relatives pleading for their loved ones to be treated, and sick people lying across the pavement because there are no beds.

A member of the Delhi’s legislative assembly issued an emotional appeal from his hospital bed on Thursday. Saurabh Bharadwaj from the Aam Aadmi party spoke in a breathless voice through his oxygen mask calling for help from the government: “The hospital in which I am admitted has only three hours of oxygen left. When I remove this mask, it feels like a non-swimmer has been pushed into a pool and is gasping for breath,” Bharadwaj said.

“We are supposed to give life. If we cannot give even oxygen, our patients will die,” Sunil Kumar Saggar, CEO of Shanti Mukand Hospital in told local media, breaking down as he spoke.

A Covid centre equipped with 500 oxygen beds is due to be opened in the capital to cope with the demand.

The government plans to make vaccines available to all adults aged over 18 from 1 May, but several states are experiencing shortages and the Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, has warned that it will not be able to meet its target to produce 100m monthly doses by late May.