NEW DELHI: As COVID-19 infected people grasp for breath due to acute shortage of medical oxygen across the country, the prices of oxygen cylinders have soared in the local market with hoarders trying to make a profit from people’s misery.
According to reports, despite strong observations made by the Supreme Court and several restrictive measures taken by the Centre and the state governments, hoarders and black marketers continue to illegally sell an oxygen cylinder at an exorbitant price and are said to be charging as much as Rs 30,000 to Rs 35000 for one full cylinder that normally costs somewhere between Rs 1500 to Rs 2,000.
All this comes at a time when several states have been pleading with the Centre to ramp up the medical oxygen supply and increase its quota amid a high number of unfortunate deaths due to oxygen shortage. Authorities at several private hospitals in the national capital scampered to refill their oxygen stocks as the lives of many COVID patients hung by a thin thread amid an acute shortage of life-saving gas.
On Monday, Delhi’s medical oxygen supply stood at around 447 MT, significantly less than the Centre’s allocated quantity of 590 MT, sources in the AAP government said.
Despite an acute shortage and repeated demands to the Centre in view of a large number of serious COVID-19 patients, the supply of medical oxygen has failed to take off in a big way in Delhi, the sources said.
The supply rose erratically from April 28, when it was 431 MT, to 447 MT on May 2, but the demand has gone beyond over 900 MT per day, a source in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government said.
In view of Delhi’s growing caseload, the Centre recently raised the city’s daily oxygen quota from 378 MT to 480 MT, then to 490 MT and finally, to 590 MT. However, the Delhi government that had earlier demanded 700 MT of oxygen per day also increased its demand to 976 MT.
According to official sources, Delhi’s oxygen supply was 431 MT on April 28, 409 MT on April 29, 312 MT on April 30, 441 MT on May 1 and 447 MT on May 2.
Delhi government has also sought help from the Centre to depute Armed Forces in the national capital to set up and operationalise the Covid-19 facilities. The Centre and the AAP government have been involved in accusing each other of the shortage of medical oxygen.
The Centre claims that the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government has failed to arrange tankers to get its quota and the city government accuses the Centre of depriving it of its required quantity of the life-saving gas.
Meanwhile, several Delhi hospitals continued to send SOS messages to authorities on Monday for replenishing their alarmingly low oxygen supplies to save the serious COVID-19 patients admitted there.
Dr Pankaj Solanki, the head of the 50-bed Dharamveer Solanki Hospital at Rohini, said he is tired of making SOS calls and “feels dejected”. “Most of the times, there is a crisis (of oxygen). It has become difficult to manage even 10 patients now,” he said.
No shortage of oxygen in the country; use it judiciously: Govt
Meanwhile, the Centre has said medical oxygen being given to COVID-19 patients, especially in hospitals, should be used “judiciously” and claimed that there was no “shortage” of the life-giving gas in the country.
At a routine briefing on steps taken by the government to battle the COVID-19 crisis, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Piyush Goyal told reporters that multiple efforts were being undertaken to enhance production and quickly transport oxygen to the hospitals and patients.
“It is very important for all the hospitals that they ensure judicious use of oxygen as per the guidelines issued in this context by the Union Health Ministry. Many efforts are being undertaken in this context and we are getting positive results also. We need to continuously monitor this so that very judicious use of oxygen is undertaken,” Goyal said.
He appealed to the citizens to not get “jittery about the lack of oxygen in the country.” “Oxygen is available in adequate quantity in the country and efforts are being made to transport it to hospitals in the shortest possible time.” Goyal was speaking to reporters in the presence of Joint Secretary, Union Health Ministry Lav Agarwal and AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria.
The country is grappling with a raging second wave of the pandemic with lakhs of patients and their family members anxiously scouring for oxygen beds in hospitals, cylinders, medicines and other medical facilities.
No “hoarding or black marketing” of oxygen cylinders: Centre
Goyal also sought the support of citizens in ensuring that no “hoarding or black marketing” of oxygen cylinders takes place so that these are made available to patients who are gasping for breath due to the coronavirus infection.
A senior govt officer said the production of medical oxygen has increased in the country as he cited data to say that while on August 1 last year, the total production was 5,700 metric tonnes, it is 9,000 metric tonnes now.
Goyal said both traditional and non-traditional avenues are being explored and enhanced for the production of liquid oxygen. He said a group of senior officials from the Centre, various states, Union Territories, manufacturers and other stakeholders were making a daily assessment of the oxygen demand in the country and oxygen is being allocated to states as part of a “dynamic process” being undertaken every day.
Goyal said the oxygen demand of no state was being “ignored” and the Centre has deployed Indian Air Force (IAF) heavy-lift aircraft to transport empty oxygen tankers and the railways to ferry filled oxygen tanks from the place of production to their destinations.
He said major medical oxygen production facilities are based in the eastern part of the country while the maximum demand at present is in the central and northern region.
Real-time tracking of Oxygen tankers
The additional secretary said as the demand for cryogenic oxygen tankers and containers is increasing, directions have been given to covert Nitrogen and Argon tankers for oxygen-carrying vessels.
Fifty per cent target has been achieved and more is being done in this direction, he said. “We are also importing such tankers by either purchasing or hiring them,” he said.
The officer said the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has developed a system through which trucks carrying oxygen cylinders that are plying on the road can be tracked on a real-time basis.
“These tankers are now GPS-tagged and there is a colour-coding system that also tells you whether they are moving, stationary, taking an unauthorised stop or getting diverted from the stipulated route,” he said.
Goyal said multiple “virtual groups’ of officers from the Centre and state are monitoring every aspect of oxygen production, transport and distribution in the country and a “virtual control room” is also working round-the-clock to resolve issues immediately.