Despite India's status as the "pharmacy of the world", government healthcare systems have been crumbling due to a lack of critical medical supplies.

India’s healthcare system is buckling under a brutal second wave of Covid-19 infections. 

Across the nation, official daily infections have stayed above 320,000, with deaths hovering around the 2,700 mark, but experts warn that official numbers are undercounted. 

Dwindling oxygen supplies, a shortage of ventilators and intensive care units operating at full capacity have battered an overwhelmed government healthcare system. 

“We need to increase the number of ICU beds because more and more people are getting critical, especially the elderly or people with a lot of comorbidities,” Dr C, a senior resident doctor working at a government hospital in New Delhi who wished to remain anonymous, told TRT World

Shortages of medical grade oxygen in the market force doctors to mechanically ventilate patients who are unable to breathe without help for hours, a difficult feat when donning Personal Protective Equipment, Dr C added. 

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“Patients and their family members are waiting outside and on the floors of the hospitals requesting just oxygen cylinders,” Tarun Sagar, a social worker based in the capital, told TRT World

It’s not just medical equipment that is in short supply. Delhi has been cremating so many bodies that authorities are receiving requests to cut down trees in city parks for kindling. 

“Recently, our team provided wooden sticks to the cremation ground in Siliguri. The organisation that requested it said on social media they are running very low on the stock for the wood to cremate the dead bodies so our team decided to give two fully loaded trucks to the cremation grounds,” Gurpreet Singh, an admin worker at Khalsa Aid, told TRT World

Groups like Khalsa Aid and others have stepped in to provide desperate Indians with help or guidance on where to find what their sick loved ones need.

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A man walks past people waiting to refill their medical oxygen cylinders for coronavirus patients at an oxygen refilling station in Allahabad on April 24, 2021.
A man walks past people waiting to refill their medical oxygen cylinders for coronavirus patients at an oxygen refilling station in Allahabad on April 24, 2021. (AFP)

Step in citizens, step out the state

Citizen groups, relatives of patients and aid organisations are all taking matters into their own hands by using social media to post pleas for oxygen concentrators and cylinders, the drug remdesivir and ventilators for patients in hospitals and at home across the country. 

“Remdesivir was available in my hospital till ten days back but again there was a shortage of that also,” Dr C said.

Twitter has become a helpline as desperate relatives posted appeals for beds, plasma donations, remdesivir and oxygen.

Hospitals in India's New Delhi are turning away patients because they don't have beds or oxygen to keep them alive.
Hospitals in India's New Delhi are turning away patients because they don't have beds or oxygen to keep them alive. (TRTWorld)

Facebook groups such Humankind Global and World Maratha Organisation have become a platform for buyers to procure plasma, critical equipment and supplies and for others to provide services and information. 

Volunteers, from students to technology professionals, nonprofit organisations and journalists, are circulating information on the availability of hospital beds, critical drugs and oxygen cylinders.

Only 38 percent of Indians use social media. 

There is also the issue of low internet connectivity in the country of 1.3 billion, where 50 percent of the population lack access to the internet. For them, there is no Twitter, Facebook or Whatsapp to turn to look for help. 

In Ghaziabad near Delhi, a gurdwara (place of worship for Sikhs) and an NGO organised an ‘Oxygen Langar’ that provided patients with respiratory issues waiting for hospital space to open up with free oxygen until they were admitted. 

Khalsa Aid has also stepped in to help bridge the gap, sourcing oxygen concentrators for patients at home whose oxygen level dip down to 75. Patients with oxygen levels lower than 75 require a cylinder. 

“[Oxygen concentrators are] an expensive piece of equipment, it’s available for $670,” Singh said. That is 50,000 in Indian rupees in a country where minimum wage is INR 4,576 or roughly $60 per month.

A patient wearing an oxygen mask looks on as his wife holds a battery-operated fan while waiting inside an auto-rickshaw to enter a Covid-19 hospital in Ahmedabad, India, April 25, 2021.
A patient wearing an oxygen mask looks on as his wife holds a battery-operated fan while waiting inside an auto-rickshaw to enter a Covid-19 hospital in Ahmedabad, India, April 25, 2021. (Reuters)

“We feel helpless working right now, Singh told TRT World. “The requests are in thousands but the stock available is in hundreds. 

Sometimes people call us for help, we have money, we want to support them, we want to do every single thing which we can but we can't do anything. The market situation is not favourable.”

“People call, they say the patient will die in just 5 to10 minutes, they don't have oxygen cylinders left, they don't have oxygen but you can't reach them, you can't help them," Singh said.

“We are getting more requests from the north but we are not able to serve them,” he said. 

"These things haunt us."

Sagar concurred, "I've not said no to people in my entire social work career as much as I did in the past few days for resources."

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Hiked up prices amid devastating shortages

In a country wracked with hundreds of thousands of infections a day, demand is high and supply is short, forcing anguished relatives to turn to an unchecked black market. 

“Oxygen cylinders for home-quarantined patients costs around $335 to $402 (25,000 to 30,000 INR) due to illegal marketing and are not readily available,” Sagar told TRT World. "The stock of remdesivir injections is over in hospitals but is still available in the market for a whopping $402 to $656 (30,000 to 49,000 INR).

“Underprivileged people belonging to lower socioeconomic backgrounds are dying. Helpless people, to save their loved ones, are buying medical supplies at extremely increased rates, which is going unchecked by the government,” Sagar said.

For those who can afford it, there still remains a large gap in supply and demand. 

Health workers carry bodies of people who were suffering from the coronavirus disease outside the Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021.
Health workers carry bodies of people who were suffering from the coronavirus disease outside the Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021. (Reuters)

PM Cares

Sagar said private-sector donations to help those in need have been going to a "PM Cares" fund. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been facing accusations of lack of transparency from the main opposition Congress Party for creating this new coronavirus relief fund when about $500 million was lying unspent in an older fund. 

Congress has questioned why the new fund was created when it could have been merged with the older fund, the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF).

“Of course (PM Cares Fund) is not transparent, Sagar said. "Why was there a need for the Cares Fund if the PMNRF existed for the same purpose?"

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Help is on the way – but is it enough? 

Crates of ventilators and oxygen concentrators from the UK have landed at a Delhi airport with critical supplies from the United States, France, Germany, Canada and the World Health Organization due soon. 

In a bid to tackle the shortage of beds, Indian authorities are turning to train carriages, which have been converted into isolation wards. 

India has also started airlifting oxygen tankers to states in need and running special trains with oxygen supplies.

It is unclear how much of a dent the incoming aid will make on the current crisis with experts saying official infections and deaths are massively underreported and scientists and people on the ground warn the "the worst is yet to come" with the peak of the outbreak expected mid-May. 

“Neighbouring countries are trying to help but the problem is our country is so deep down in the drain that I don't know much of help we actually need,” Dr C said. 

“I don't think there is an end to this, I don't see the end, I do not believe that in a month or two things are going to normalise. This is going to continue at least for another three or four months,” C said. 

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Source: TRT World