Oxygen leak kills 22 hospital patients as Covid second wave devastates India

Ventilated patients run out of air as healthcare sytem buckles amid 300,000 daily cases

Relatives of a Covid-19 victim mourn outside a hospital morgue in New Delhi, India. Photograph: EPA

Relatives of a Covid-19 victim mourn outside a hospital morgue in New Delhi, India. Photograph: EPA


Twenty-two coronavirus patients have died in western India after a leaking oxygen tank was shut down at a government-run hospital, as the country’s healthcare system unravels under a relentless second wave of infections.

Officials said the oxygen supply at the Zakir Husain hospital in Nashik district in Maharashtra state, 166km north of Mumbai, was stopped for half an hour due to the leak, killing patients who were on ventilators.

The tragedy in the remote hospital epitomised the disintegration of India’s healthcare system under the onslaught of its second pandemic wave, as the country’s daily infections reached almost 300,000 on Wednesday.

Those cases took the overall number recorded in the country of more than 1.3 billion people to 15.6 million since the pandemic began – second globally only to the US.

India also recorded 2,000 deaths on Wednesday, bringing its official total of deaths to 182,553.

“Hospitals in New Delhi are gasping and breathless,” said Dr S K Sarin, who heads the capital’s official committee to combat the pandemic, as oxygen reserves in all of the city’s overcrowded medical facilities dwindled.

Television news channels and social media platforms were awash with disturbing accounts of virus-infected patients struggling in hospitals in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bhopal and numerous other towns across India, as scarce oxygen supplies were further reduced.

Patients waited in serpentine queues in hospital entranceways and car parks for medical help. Many were forcibly turned away by security staff, and though several state administrations claimed to be preparing new facilities, experts said it would be hard to keep pace with rising cases numbers.

Makeshift hospitals

Medical facilities and luxury hotels were turned into makeshift hospitals in several cities, but they faced a lack of ventilators and ICU beds. Essential antiviral medications like remdesivir, tocilizumab and other anti-inflammatory medicines were in short supply, with many surfacing on the black-market at exorbitant prices.

A limited curfew has been imposed in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities and towns, but some experts said the measures were inadequate.

In his nationwide televised address on Tuesday, prime minister Narendra Modi ruled out the imminent imposition of a countrywide lockdown, similiar to to the complete shutdown in the country last year. Such an extreme measure, he said, would only be undertaken as a “last resort”.

But the restricted closures harked back to last year’s shutdown, when hordes of people across urban India resorted to panic buying of essential foodstuffs and millions of daily wage migrant labourers, rendered unemployed overnight, made their way back home, exacerbating the chaos and spreading the virus further.

The Indian government said this week it will let all citizens aged over 18 receive Covid-19 vaccinations from May 1st, but vaccines are in short supply. Since January, only 2.9 per cent of Indians have been inoculated, and officials anticipate law and order problems once mass vaccinations begin next month and shortages surface.

The situation has been complicated by the fact that two Covid-19 variants – B.1.617 and B.1.6178 – are raging across India, with some experts believing they are more transmissible and deadly.

Several countries such as Britain, New Zealand, Singapore and the US have imposed restrictions on travellers from India or issued advisories to their citizens against visiting India.