I had never seen a man die short of breath until I met Chander Prakash. He was 43 years old, around 5’6 ”and with an O2 saturation of 35. For me, he was a stranger to whom I had lent my oxygen cylinder, but to my friend he was the husband of his maid and to Lata, his wife, the world. I met them at the Max Saket Hospital in New Delhi at 9 p.m. in the emergency dock area, amid pleading for a bed and a rapid antigen test. The scene was horrific, because in the last five hours he had been transported from hospital to hospital in a small rag to be rejected each time.
It took an extra hour, before the tests were done, and we had to take a call to see our O2 run out. We had to bring oxygen to Chander, otherwise his death was imminent. It was almost 10 p.m. when he began his fight against death. We first made our way to Subhash Nagar, where a kind-hearted Sikh man ran an “oxygen langar” in the shadow of the deserted Pacific Mall. Four patients were in front of us and our bottle was almost finished. The patients sat on the sidewalks, coughing, confused and wheezing, struggling to survive. We responded to our admission requests when a volunteer saw Chander’s O2 level drop below 30. He and Lata were allowed in. At this point, Chander could still walk, slowly, and Lata was hopeful.
The alarmed volunteer (Sevadar) told us, “We had bottles (of oxygen) coming to us, but the police stopped our truck. They accuse us of black marketing, when we give seva to people for free. He was sad that he couldn’t help us. The Sikh community was risking illness and death at this time to help people. He warned us that the concentrator would only support Chander and that we urgently needed to refill our bottle.
It was 11:30 p.m. and a dark, deserted road awaited us. We searched for oxygen through Naraina and other filling stations until we reached Mayapuri, where people had been waiting since 6 a.m. for oxygen. We thought it was the end for Chander, but so almost miraculously, a policeman helped us. He almost saved Chander’s life, we thought, when he stepped out of the gas station at 1:54 a.m.
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When we reached ‘langar’ Chander had already been without oxygen for 30 minutes, and his levels were critical. He was disoriented and could barely get into the car, and even after rejuvenating him with oxygen, he was short of breath, stertic and uncomfortable. In my mind it was clear, maybe he won’t even survive the night. We prayed as we drove from AIIMS, Safdarjung, ESI Hospital and finally back to Max, hoping he will live the night. During all this time, we only encountered distressed and overworked doctors, three patients sharing a bed in the AIIMS emergency room and in Safdarjung, the scene was gruesome. As Safdarjung was not a designated COVID-19 hospital, they categorically refused. Just outside the ER, people gasped. They were all helpless, poor and couldn’t breathe. No hospital or doctor helped them, because a girl kissed her mother alive for the last time.
By now Chander’s oxygen had dropped to 10 and we were turned down again by Max for lack of beds, and we were sent home. A good doctor prescribed some medicine, but maybe he knew about Chander’s plight. By this time, it was 6 am, Chander had lived through the night, but his condition was very poor. His legs couldn’t move, he could barely speak, and probably had multiple organ damage. Two hours later, he died of a stroke, in pain and short of breath, next to his two children. But I knew he didn’t die from COVID-19, he died because he was poor and neglected. He died because the government’s COVID-19 crisis plan was working and the problem of poverty and population was solved with one stone, which is COVID-19.
“Oxygen, oxygen everywhere but not a liter to breathe”. Yes, Mr. Coleridge, it is the rhyme of the modern sailor, sailing through this dreaded “plan-demic”. Why is this a “demic plan”? Because the government knew what was to come, yet PM-CARES funds amassed bank interests and not oxygen factories, in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, et al, where thousands of deaths could have been avoided. Maybe it would have made Dr Harsh Vardhan less lair too much.
Far from “a sufficient supply of oxygen”, Delhi hospitals are rejecting patients due to lack of oxygen, while others die in hospitals due to lack of oxygen. The government insisted on home care for mild symptoms, but by closing the private filling station in Delhi, it was impossible for patients to get their oxygen.
Also read: 8 COVID-19 patients, including doctor, die at Batra Hospital in Delhi due to oxygen shortage
May 1-2 saw the worst oxygen crisis for home care patients in Delhi. Volunteer Aman Sharma, 27, has traveled over 300 km around Delhi-NCR reporting on the oxygen situation: “There is no oxygen in the city. All the major centers are waiting for tankers. There is no supply and states opt for regionalism instead of humanity, ”he said. His observation reflects the gloomy mood of the city as even large centers such as Shaheen Bagh’s in Mayapuri lacked oxygen. Meanwhile, Kejriwal diffuses his incompetence, pleading for Modi, like a helpless idiot.
Delhi blames Modi and Modi blames someone else, while innocent people die. New Age politicians are ruled by Machiavellian rules and Twitter loves it, not by their hearts. At this point, Amartya Sen’s analysis of food starvation comes to mind. He said the famines were not caused by food shortages, but by inefficient distribution systems. Likewise, today, the artificial oxygen scarcity and oxygen starvation are the result of bad policies and malicious political plans. We have enough oxygen in the country and the world, so why does it fail to reach the dying poor or the hospitals in Delhi? How many dying Chanders, how many orphaned children and how many lying politicians will it take for people to stand up and take back their right to breathe? I think at this point not very much.
(The Author writes on agriculture and the environment and is the former director of Politics & Outreach, national Seed Association of India. the opinions are personal.)