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April, November last year: Officials, House panel flagged oxygen need, shortage

Empowered Group said shortage likely, House panel said need oxygen inventory

Written by Harikishan Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: April 23, 2021 7:23:52 am
Mad rush, as patients woth Oxygen cylinders wait to get admission into the LNJP hospital in New Delhi on Thursday. Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal 220421

Almost drowned by the alarm bells ringing across the nation over the critical shortage of oxygen in the second Covid wave is the fact that the warning signs came clear and early: in April one full year ago and then again in November.

The first was just a week after the national lockdown began, on April 1, 2020, by one of the 11 Empowered Groups of Officers, set up by the Centre for planning and implementing an effective Covid response.

This was the Empowered Group-VI (EG-VI) tasked to coordinate with the “Private Sector, NGOs & International Organizations for response related activities.” In its second meeting, held on April 1 last year, it red-flagged oxygen shortage.

The minutes of the meeting said: “In the coming days India could face a shortage of oxygen supplies. To address this, CII will coordinate with Indian Gas Association and mitigate the lack of oxygen supply.”

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This meeting, headed by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, was attended by India’s Principal Scientific Adviser K. Vijay Raghavan; Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade; NDMA member Kamal Kishore; and over half a dozen officials from various wings of the Government including the Prime Minister’s Office; Ministry of Home Affairs; Ministry of External Affairs; Cabinet Secretariat; Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs; and NITI Aayog. A dozen industry representatives, including CII Director General Chandrajit Banerjee, participated in the meeting.

Asked what follow-up action was taken after this oxygen warning by the group, an official, who was part of the meeting, told The Indian Express: “It was decided that, henceforth ,the DPIIT will look into the issue of Oxygen Supply.”

Delhi covid-19 hospitals covid patients Family members outside a hospital in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Records show that four days after this meeting, a nine-member committee was set up under the chairmanship of DPIIT Secretary Guruprasad Mohapatra to “ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.”

Requests for comment to the official spokesperson of the DPIIT and CII by The Indian Express went unanswered.

Incidentally, the day the EG-VI highlighted the shortage of Oxygen, the number of total confirmed cases was just over 2000.

With the steady increase in the number of Covid-19 cases, consumption of medical oxygen continued to rise and jumped to 3,000 metric tonnes (MT) per day around September 24-25 (around the peak of first wave of Covid-19) from about 1,000 MT per day pre-Covid.

delhi covid hospitals covid patients oxygen shortage Hospitals have been complaining of an acute shortage of oxygen. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

But few warning bells rang as the overall production of medical oxygen was around 6,900 MT per day.

Not just EG-VI, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health also flagged the issue of “availability as well as affordability” of medical oxygen and asked the government to “encourage adequate production of Oxygen for ensuring its supply as per demand in the hospitals.”

In one of the meetings of the Committee, held under the Chairmanship of Ram Gopal Yadav of Samajwadi Party on October 16, 2020, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan highlighted the use of “non-invasive oxygen” in Covid-19 treatment and how it’s delivering “good results.”

“Secretary, Department of Health and Family Welfare informed the Committee that the Ministry has requested the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) to fix the price of oxygen as non-invasive oxygen has been found to deliver good results…,” said the report of the Committee presented to Chairman, Rajya Sabha on November 21, 2020.

“He (Health Secretary) also submitted that during pre-Covid days, the consumption of medical oxygen was almost 1,000 metric tons per day and the rest of the 6,000 metric tons of oxygen was being used in the industry. Therefore, there is a strong need to ensure that the oxygen inventory is in place and oxygen prices are controlled,” states the report titled as “The Outbreak of Pandemic Covid-19 and Its Management.”

Delhi covid hospitals oxygen shortage A patient waiting outside LNJP Hospital in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

“The Committee, therefore, strongly advocates National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority to take appropriate measures for capping the price of Oxygen Cylinders so that availability as well as affordability of the Oxygen Cylinders is ensured in all hospitals for medical consumption…The Committee also recommends the Government for encouraging adequate production of Oxygen for ensuring its supply as per demand in the hospitals,” said the report.

The Committee also recommended that the Health Ministry ensure the adequate supply of oxygen cylinders with “appropriate price caps.”

Fast-forward to this year. Just as the second uptick started, Maharashtra, on March 30 this year, issued an order to “regularize the circulation and supply of oxygen” from production units located within the state.

“80% of production to be used only for medical oxygen and to be supplied to the hospitals in Maharashtra,” the order said.

On the day of the order, the national daily figure of fresh Covid-19 cases was around 53,000 — and the second wave had just started.

Yet, it was only last week that the Centre imposed the prohibition on supply of oxygen to industries with effect from April 22, 2021 saying that the demand for medical oxygen had reached about 60% of total daily oxygen production.” This is expected to rise given that in the second wave, a higher share of patients require oxygen support.

“One thing, I am afraid, we might have to regret is not having done enough to ramp up production and supplies of oxygen. The first wave had shown how critical oxygen is to saving lives. It is true, it takes about a year to start new production facilities. But we had about five or six months of time to make emergency arrangements,” said Sudhir Mehta, president of Pune-based Mahratta Chambers of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), which hosts the Pune Platform for Covid Response, a business-led initiative to mobilise essential resources in the Pune region.

“Existing manufacturing units could have been encouraged to increase capacities. Additional sources of oxygen could have been found. Supply bottlenecks could have been smoothened. Unfortunately, we are now in a situation very similar to the start of the pandemic last year. And the demand is much more than last year.” (with Amitabh Sinha, Gaya)

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