Scramble for oxygen continues as countries pledge help for India

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NEW DELHI – Mr Saurav Srivastava had five hours to find oxygen for his father. At home, he told family members to stretch the use of the gas in the cylinder as much as possible while he left on his motorcycle with a friend holding an empty cylinder to look for a refill.

Three hours later, he had visited four places in Delhi and Ghaziabad, which borders the capital, without success. Finally someone told him about a company, Star Special Air Gases, in Manesar Industrial Model Township in Haryana state, which was offering free oxygen.

He rode there and joined a long queue of people waiting to get an oxygen refill. Under the watchful eye of the police, people rolled the heavy full cylinders back to their vehicles.

Within two hours, he was ready to race back home amid frantic phone calls that his father’s oxygen supply was dwindling.

“This cylinder runs for four hours. With breaks, we can run it for 5½ hours,” Mr Srivastava told The Straits Times on Tuesday (April 27). He had a distance of 60km to travel to get the gas home. Once back, he noted, the whole oxygen run would start all over again.

India, which till January was exporting oxygen, is now in the midst of an unprecedented oxygen crisis.

As Covid-19 cases have climbed, harried hospitals have been running short of oxygen. India reported new 323,144 cases and 2,771 deaths in the 24 hours up to Tuesday.

Patients and their families or friends are forced to chase down multiple leads for oxygen cylinders even as prices have gone through the roof.

And India’s oxygen hunt has become international, with global mobilisation taking place.

Singapore, the UK, France, Germany, the US and Saudi Arabia are among more than a dozen countries that are sending oxygen and oxygen-related equipment as India continues to be overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases in a second wave.

France is sending oxygen generators, containers and ventilators.

The UK is sending oxygen concentrators and ventilators, while Germany and Saudi Arabia have said they will send oxygen.

“Dear friends in India – we will fight this together! We are working closely with @Temasek and other partners to send 7,511 O2 concentrators, 516 BiPAP machines, & other supplies ASAP,” tweeted Singapore in India, the official twitter handle of Singapore’s diplomatic missions in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

Until early January, India, whose daily oxygen production capacity is just over 7,000 tonnes, was an exporter of oxygen. Before the pandemic last year, about 85 per cent of it went to industrial uses.

On Monday, the federal government, which had already restricted the use of oxygen to certain sectors like petroleum, imposed a blanket ban on its use for industrial purposes.

That alone has not alleviated the oxygen crisis, said officials.

The main challenge is transporting the oxygen, which is produced in the east of India, far away from the worst-affected cities. Delhi, hit by the most severe shortage, has no oxygen production.

“We have enough stock of oxygen. The issue is transportation. Transportation is a major challenge which we are trying to resolve by active involvement of all stakeholders,” said additional secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs Piyush Goyal on Monday.

To get it to cities quickly, the Indian Air Force flew four cryogenic oxygen containers from Singapore to India on Saturday.

While sourcing oxygen remains a constant worry for many of India’s city dwellers, the price has been paid by those who did not get oxygen in time.

Dr Pradip Bijalwan, who worked with Delhi’s homeless people, was one of them. He had decided to treat himself at home as he couldn’t get a hospital bed. He died on Friday.

“Pradip Bijalwan, a rare doctor disinterested in money; his only ambition to serve the most needy. For many years, he worked in our homeless street work. Until his end, he was running our covid clinic for the homeless. He died 2 days back for lack of oxygen. Cry my beloved country,” tweeted human rights activist and peace worker Harsh Mander.

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