No shortage, only hoarding and blackmarketing, says CM Yogi Adityanath
It was after standing in a queue for almost eight hours through the day that Prashant Trivedi, an associate professor of Sociology, managed to refill an oxygen cylinder at a gas agency in Bakshi ka Talab on the outskirts of the Uttar Pradesh capital. Mr. Trivedi was appalled by the big crowd gathered at the refilling station with little regard for physical distancing. He fears that refilling stations, where kin of patients are turning up in large numbers and standing in queues for several hours, could serve as hotspots in further spreading COVID-19.
“These are people who have family members who are positive, admitted in hospitals or in isolation. I myself wondered if I was taking a risk by going there to get a cylinder refilled for my mother,” said Mr. Trivedi.
Naturally, Mr. Trivedi, like hundreds of people in the State desperately seeking oxygen for their loved ones, had little choice. Mr. Trivedi has three patients under home isolation — his wife, daughter and mother. His mother’s oxygen levels are depleting.
After some hospitals reported depleting levels of oxygen supply, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath asserted that there was no shortage of oxygen supply at any COVID-19 hospital, private or government-run, but that the actual problem was blackmarketing and hoarding.
Patients under home isolation as well as those getting treated at private hospitals, however, reported difficulty in securing oxygen, especially in purchasing empty cylinders. Outside oxygen agencies, one could see long queues of people waiting with their cylinders in anticipation.
Neetu Batra’s family ran from one agency to another in search of an empty cylinder but could not find anything for her aunt (76), who passed away on Friday allegedly due to lack of timely and proper provision of oxygen. Though the family did manage to borrow a small cylinder from a friend, it did not have the required flow to last her through the night.
“We drove her in an ambulance to different hospitals but did not get admission anywhere. Her RT-PCR test was negative but she had all symptoms of COVID-19,” said Ms. Batra. Her aunt finally managed to get a bed at a government-run hospital but she died moments after arriving.
While people have to wait long hours to get their cylinders refilled, there is also the non-availability of fresh oxygen cylinders. Those who manage to find cylinders are asked to pay exorbitant rates.
Praveen Singh, who runs a stationery shop, said he was asked to pay ₹70,000 for a filled cylinder and ₹45,000 for an empty one, and while one could refill an empty cylinder for ₹500-600, it would take a wait of several hours in a queue. “But not everyone has 12 hours in hand,” said Mr. Singh, whose friend’s mother needed oxygen urgently.
With options running out, Mr. Singh’s day was saved by a friend who on Sunday offered to lend him his cylinder as he no longer needed it after having tested negative. “I already dread this…if we need another cylinder, we would have to either stand in queue or pay extra. Standing in line also offers no guarantee that we would get the refill,” he said.
Many people said that at refilling stations, agencies had started prioritising private hospitals after a directive by the government made it harder for individuals to get regular supply of oxygen. Some agencies were not receiving regular supply, causing logistical problems for attendants of patients who had to shuttle from one centre to another in search of supply. Even after the 8 p.m. curfew, long queues were seen at night outside oxygen filling centres.
Ahsan Abbas’ sister-in-law, who is pregnant and has breathing problems, was admitted to a private hospital where she was provided with an oxygen cylinder. However, after it ran out, the hospital asked the family to arrange the refill themselves. Mr. Abbas’ brother went to the oxygen agency at around 4 p.m. but returned only at 10 p.m. after refilling a 10 litre cylinder. “We are able to recharge cylinders but after a long wait in queue. The agencies are not providing empty cylinders and those selling them are doing it at unaffordable rates,” said Mr. Abbas, who is unemployed.
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