Covid-hit India scrambles for oxygen supplies as hospitals appeal for help

06, May. 2021

Relatives of Covid-19 patients wait to refill cylinders with medical oxygen at Gurugram in the northern Indian state of Haryana on April 25, 2021.(PTI)
Relatives of Covid-19 patients wait to refill cylinders with medical oxygen at Gurugram in the northern Indian state of Haryana on April 25, 2021.(PTI)

By Atul Ranjan

NEW DELHI, NNA - Oxygen has become the hottest commodity in recent weeks in India where the supply of medical oxygen has run short at hospitals overwhelmed by thousands of patients in the country's horrific second wave of the pandemic.

Manufacturing companies across India have repurposed their functions to produce oxygen or stopped using industrial oxygen to help tackle the crippling crunch which has led to scores of tragic deaths as the country crossed an alarming 20-million mark of COVID-19 infections.

Lending their support are Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. and Suzuki Motor Gujarat Pvt. Ltd. which temporarily shuttered their plants to help divert oxygen used in vehicle manufacturing to medical use.

Maruti Suzuki, the country’s largest passenger carmaker and a local unit of Japanese auto giant Suzuki Motor Corp.’, said while the company uses only a small amount of oxygen at its factories, its auto-component suppliers consume much more in their operations.

By halting production, the company can support the emergency drive to channel oxygen to save lives, it explained.

The move comes after the government banned the use of oxygen for non-medical purposes and directed liquid oxygen producers to maximize production for the government to deploy it to hospitals.

Authorities in the northern Indian state of Haryana, where Maruti Suzuki plants are located, also directed factory owners to deposit their liquid oxygen cylinders with the state administration.

Maruti Suzuki cease production on May 1 for nine days after deciding to bring forward its maintenance schedule from June.

Suzuki Motor Gujarat, also a subsidiary of Suzuki Motor Corp., has ceased operations in the western state of Gujarat too.

The disruption in oxygen supply for industrial use will help save lives, though it will impact on earnings of some sectors such as automobile, said ratings agency Crisil Ratings.

“The disruption in the supply of oxygen for industrial use would temporarily impact the revenues of small and mid-sized companies (which are) into metal fabrication, automotive components, shipbreaking, paper, and engineering,” said Gautam Shahi, a Crisil director.

“These typically do not have captive oxygen plants and source their requirement through merchant suppliers for operations such as welding, cutting, cleaning and chemical processes,” he said.

Crisil said setting up an air-separation plant or importing oxygen would require significant lead time and relatively prohibitive costs, so both are not viable options for small businesses.

Sushant Sarode, a Crisil associate director, believes the industrial oxygen disruption will last six to eight weeks for now. However, a prolonged pandemic crisis will curtail supply to industries for a much longer period and exacerbate downside risks for the affected sectors.

He cautioned, “The impact will be greater for companies in Maharashtra, New Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, where medical oxygen demand has increased multiple times due to high COVID-19 caseloads.”

The unstoppable surge of the second wave fueled by mutant strains has wreaked widespread havoc with daily infections hitting a record 300,000 last week before soaring to more than 382,300 this week.

Deaths rose by a record 3,780 during the last 24 hours, reported the country on Wednesday morning.

India has been scrambling to meet the surging demand for medical oxygen with many hospitals, especially in the national capital region of Delhi, reporting how severe shortages have claimed many lives.

According to recent government reports, the daily consumption of medical oxygen jumped from 1,000 metric tons (MT) in pre-COVID days to almost 3,000 MT around mid-September because of the pandemic last year. It has since skyrocketed to 7,000 MT earlier this year.

With the rude arrival of the second wave, the country ramped up capacity to 9,103 MT as of April 24, with the help of private and public steel plants, industries, oxygen manufacturers as well as the mandated diversion of oxygen from non-essential activities.

While the government insists that it has enough capacity to meet demand and plans to import liquid oxygen, the timely delivery of oxygen to hospitals across the country has been hampered by massive logistical issues to transport and store oxygen properly.

It is produced mainly in eastern and central India, far-flung from COVID hotspots like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh which need it most.

In a press conference last week, Piyush Goyal, additional secretary in home affairs ministry, said, “Don't worry, don't panic. We have enough stock of oxygen. The issue is transportation. Transportation is a major challenge which we are trying to resolve by active involvement of all stakeholders."

"We are trying to resolve the issue of oxygen transportation from the producing states to high-demand areas," Goyal said.

He said liquid medical oxygen needs to be transported in special cryogenic tankers, which are in short supply in the country. So, nitrogen and argon tankers have to be converted to carry out the task.

The government has called for a tender to import of 50,000 MT of medical oxygen. It has also accepted supply from 40 countries such as Singapore, Japan and America.

The country’s major ports have waived-off all charges for ships carrying oxygen and oxygen-related equipment and giving them berthing priority.

Ravi Malik, chief managing director of Radix Healthcare, a Delhi-based hospital treating COVID-19 patients, told NNA over the phone that hospitals have continued to face severe shortages.

“We are not getting timely supply of oxygen. It will lead to massive problems if cases continue to increase,” he said.

Politicians and observers said issues affecting the production and delivery of medical oxygen have exposed flaws in the country's health system and its pandemic preparedness.

“Despite administrations trying to do their best to supply medical oxygen, demand overtook the supply, making its availability inadequate during the pandemic times,” said a report by researchers at Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management, Visakhapatnam, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

However, what is more worrying is that the pace of vaccinations in India and across some of the worst-hit states have slowed down in recent weeks as vaccine supplies fell, said Crisil.

India, the third-largest producer of drugs in the world, supplies nearly 60 percent of the global demand for vaccines, but is now facing shortages at home.

Vaccination is seen as an effective weapon against the deadly virus, but only 2 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people has been fully inoculated with two doses as of May 2, according to Our World in Data. Almost 9.2 percent has received their first dose.