When the pipes carrying oxygen to critically ill COVID-19 patients stopped working at a hospital in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on Sunday evening, relatives of sick patients used towels to fan their loved ones in an attempt to save them.
Some anguished family members sent desperate pleas for oxygen on social media. Others grabbed their phones and frantically dialed local politicians. A few even sprinted down the hospital’s hallways, desperately searching for a doctor, a nurse, anyone, to help.
But nothing worked. There was no oxygen left.
“Everyone was helpless,” said Rani, who goes by one name, and whose husband Sureendra, 29, was among several COVID-19 patients who died because the lifesaving oxygen had suddenly run out. “I want to kill myself. What will I do without my husband now?”
Local officials provided different accounts of the death toll at the hospital. Some said that at least 10 died from oxygen deprivation. Others said that 14 more died after the accident but that they died of comorbidities related to COVID, not directly from the oxygen shortage.
Officials were clear, though; the oxygen had run out.
“The deaths happened between Sunday and Monday morning, but we can’t say all died due to lack of oxygen,” said M.R. Ravi, an official in Chamarajanagar, a town in the southern part of Karnataka. “We are investigating the cause.”
What happened at the Chamarajanagar District Hospital in Karnataka on Sunday night and into Monday morning, after the oxygen disappeared, is the latest in a series of deadly accidents occurring across India as the country battles a tremendous second wave of infections and demands for medical oxygen far outstrip supply.
Last week, after oxygen ran out at one hospital in India’s capital, New Delhi, 12 people died. The week before that, it was 20. On Monday, four died in a hospital in Madhya Pradesh state, in central India, after family members said that there, too, the oxygen had run out though officials denied that.
Doctors at dozens of hospitals in Delhi have been warning that they have come dangerously close to running out as well and that it was untenable to keep waiting for last-minute supplies to arrive. As the latest incident shows, at a hospital more than 1,000 miles from the capital, oxygen shortages have now spread nationwide.
“It is a failure of governance,” said Ritu Priya, a professor at Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal University in New Delhi. “We were not able to channelize oxygen distribution over the past year, when that is what we should have been doing.”
“We are living from oxygen cylinder to oxygen cylinder,” she said.
Medical oxygen has suddenly become one of the most precious resources in India, and the need for it will continue as the surge of coronavirus infections is hardly abating.
On Monday, the Indian federal Health Ministry reported 368,147 new cases and 3,417 deaths from the virus, a figure that remains low on the first day of the week. The Indian government said it has enough liquid oxygen to meet medical needs and that it is rapidly expanding its supply. It blames logistical issues for shortages of oxygen, but many doctors and sick people question that.
India has been receiving aid from other countries, and many have airlifted oxygen generators, including France, which delivered eight oxygen generator plants Sunday, and from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The country has also received six planeloads of equipment and supplies including material for coronavirus vaccines from the United States.
What is complicating matters in India is that the oxygen production facilities are concentrated mostly in its eastern parts, far from the worst outbreaks in Delhi and in the western state of Maharashtra, requiring several days’ travel time by road.
In recent days delays in moving oxygen to the hospitals in cities that are far from the generating plants have caused deaths that could have been avoided, experts said. On Saturday 12 patients, including a doctor, died when a hospital in New Delhi ran out of oxygen for an hour, according to Sudhanshu Bankata, an official of the Batra Hospital, where the deaths took place.
The same thing happened at Jaipur Golden Hospital in New Delhi. Dr. Deep Kumar Baluja, an administrator at the hospital, which is dedicated to COVID-19 patients, said his hospital had been getting oxygen supplies each day at a specific time from the suppliers. But on April 24, Baluja said, those supplies failed to arrive on time.
The 20 patients died “one after another,” he said. “I have no words to express what I felt when patients died.”
Rani, 28, a staff nurse and the wife of Sureendra, who was in the intensive care unit, said she spoke to her husband around 8:30 p.m. Sunday when he was eating dinner and sounded fine, she said.
But around 11:30 p.m., he called his wife, gasping for breath, she said.
“Please come here, I don’t want to die without seeing your face,” he said.
Rani, said she was shocked and called hospital authorities, who said they would arrange the oxygen soon. She called her husband again and told him to do breathing exercises and try to lay face down.
She asked neighbors to accompany her to the hospital, a journey of 45 minutes from their village home, but they refused, saying it was risky to travel at night.
When she arrived at the hospital, her father-in-law told her she was now a widow. Her husband had died early Monday, during that 10-hour period when the hospital was out of oxygen.
“God has been very unkind and cruel to me,” she said. “The happiness he gave me briefly has been snatched from me.”