By Jayasmita Datta
The joy of temporarily outpowering the virus was afloat in the air and mirrored by the flouting of social distancing and safety norms. The curve flattened, but it was the calm before the storm. The horror of an apocalyptic truth awaited us. A few months into 2021, the catastrophe unveiled, one at a time, seizing a nation of 1.3 billion.
India reached a peak of more than 93,000 cases on average in mid-September. By mid-February, India recorded an average of 11,000 cases per day. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths from the disease had slid and gradually gone down below 100. The chain of the infection had visibly declined. But the joy was short-lived.
The Election Commission of India, at the end of February, announced key elections in five states. The election beginning March 27 stretched over a month; 824 seats were contested, with 186 million eligible voters. The campaigning had begun in full swing soon after the announcements, flouting all necessary safety norms.
According to a report by BBC, “In mid-March, the cricket board allowed more than 130,000 fans, mostly unmasked, to watch two international cricket games between India and England at the Narendra Modi stadium in Gujarat.” Also, the Kumbh Mela, with millions of devotees taking part, turned into a super spreader in the blink of an eye.
According to another report by the BBC, “Authorities in Rajasthan blame the pilgrims for the rapid spread of Covid cases in the state, especially in rural areas. At least 24 Kumbh visitors tested positive on return to the eastern state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). In Gujarat, at least 34 of a total of 313 passengers returning by one train were positive. Further, 60 of the 61 – or 99% – returnees tested in a town in central Madhya Pradesh state were found to be infected.”
All of this collectively pushed India into a state of a public health emergency.
Soon enough, things started to take a turn for the worse. The second wave broke out, grasping the nation and leaving it helpless. By mid-April, the country recorded an average of 100,000 cases daily. As of May 27 2020, India has recorded a total of 2.76 Cr cases, with 2.49 Cr active cases and a death toll of 3.14 L, since the outbreak.
According to a report by Scroll.in, “The various predictive models say this is just the beginning and the peak of the second wave will be anywhere between 3.5 L-4.4 L cases a day as per the IIT SUTRA Model, to 5 lakh new cases a day as per the NITI Aayog, to even 8 lakh-10 lakh cases a day as per Professor Bhramar Mukherjee of Michigan University.” The skyrocketing positive tests and the death toll started the fight for basic medical necessities. It started a fight for breath.
Before the outbreak of the virus and the onset of the lethal pandemic, India’s daily estimate for oxygen was 700 metric tonnes, according to industry reports. In September 2020, the requirement shot up to 2800 metric tonnes during the peak of the first wave. As of April ’21, India recorded more than 3 L cases per day during the second wave.
India even crossed the 4 L daily mark, ending up becoming one of the worst-hit nations. Keeping the increasing cases in mind and using extrapolation, it is evident that India’s daily oxygen requirement will gross almost three times as during the first wave, which comes out to be 8400 metric tonnes.
The second wave witnessed oxygen, a life-saving gas, turn into a rare and hard to procure commodity. People have died, around the clock, due to the scarcity of oxygen. During the first lockdown, in March 2020, the power to allocate oxygen to the states on their demand was taken over by the Centre under the Disaster Management Act of 2005.
According to this act, even if the state has the required infrastructure and resources to produce, support, and transport oxygen, it will have to ask the Centre to provide for the required supply. As mentioned earlier, the act further pushed India to the edge, creating a nationwide dearth of oxygen.
In nine days, from April 20, the requirement for medical oxygen shot up to 67% as per information collected from the oxygen allocation orders issued by Health and Family Welfare Ministry. The increasing cases only added to the struggle; The oxygen demand increased from 12 states, on April 15, to a total of 22 states on April 24. The allocations were then made accordingly.
The exponential rise in the positive results overburdened the public healthcare system. The hospitals ran out of supplies. The situation got so worse that the hospital had to put up notices reading, “NO OXYGEN AVAILABLE/ NO BEDS AVAILABLE.” Several factors aided the shortage, one of the prime factors being no centralized supply of oxygen.
“There is no centralized coordination of oxygen supply and distribution. It is completely haphazard and red tape has held back timely deliveries,” Kumar Rahul, Secretary in the Health Department of Punjab said.
Inadequate transport and shortage of storage have been a grim factor in this fight against the intangible. Liquid oxygen has to be transported, to distributors, at a very low temperature in cryogenic cylinders.
The liquid oxygen is then converted to gas for filling cylinders. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of cryogenic cylinders in India. Only a finite number of cylinders are available, which further adds to the struggle. Not only cities and towns but also villages saw this scarcity, where the infrastructure is already weak.
While the oxygen crisis and cases peaked at an all-time high, what India witnessed over the past two months is extraordinary. The nation braved its walls, united, against the virus, in this fight for breath and life.
In these trying times, it wasn’t religion that saved us Indians. The never seen before side of social media came to light. Stories and posts filled with resources saved lives. That stranger you did not even know dialed up several numbers to get someone an oxygen cylinder, a bed, and God knows what not!
The oxygen langars at Gurudwaras became the last ray of hope in these tumultuous times. People from all corners of the country, forgetting their differences, came together to help someone they didn’t even remotely know in need.
Funnily enough, the central government had an entire year to plan for this but they didn’t. They sat down in their high castles and built houses for their mirth while the nation turned into a ticking time bomb. When the nation asked them about the numbers, the centre had but one answer: there are no numbers since there was no death caused by oxygen shortage.