Updated: May 2, 2021 1:09:28 pm
A row of cellphones are lined up on Saurabh Srivatava’s office table. The Varanasi BJP MLA has employed 3-4 youngsters to attend to the distress calls, mostly from family members of Covid patients, for oxygen, beds in hospitals, remdesivir or even RT-PCR tests.
“Last year, the demand was for food and transportation for the migrants coming back from other states. That was something we could manage. This time the demands are different. We are doing all we can, but sometimes even that is not enough. This second Covid wave has hit us with so much force. There have been several calls for oxygen, but we do not have enough oxygen points or cylinders. While building a hospital, people don’t install too many oxygen points because they never thought they would need it. This pandemic has caught us unprepared,” says Srivastava as he gets another phone call — the fourth in the last 5 minutes.
It’s a call from a person who has been waiting outside Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Government Hospital in Varanasi with the body of his relative for the last several hours, but is yet to get an ambulance or a hearse van.
As of Friday, Varanasi district, which has 13 Covid hospitals, has 15,454 active cases, the third highest in the state after Lucknow and Kanpur Nagar. In Uttar Pradesh, with 34,626 new cases and 332 Covid related deaths in past 24 hours, the number of active cases has reached 3,10,783.
While officials claim the situation in Varanasi hospitals is better than those in Lucknow and Kanpur Nagar in terms of oxygen availability and beds, they admit that given their infrastructure, they have very little room for complacency.
“There is no question that the pandemic has caught us unprepared. The situation in Varanasi is already bad, with a large number of patients coming from neighbouring districts and other states. All hospitals have been stretched to their limits. Even during this second wave, when we having been struggling with lack of staff and resources, we are doing everything we can to save lives. But not sure how long we can do that,” said a medical official, adding that better medical facilities in neighbouring districts would have eased up pressure on Varanasi, Lucknow and some of the bigger cities.
Over 10 kilometres from the MLA’s house, outside Sir Sunderlal Hospital that’s on the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) campus, a huge crowd of people are waiting to give their Covid test samples — the next round of sampling will begin only an hour later. Outside another counter are people waiting to get their results.
Every time health workers in PPE kits take out a sealed body from inside the hospital’s Covid ward towards a waiting ambulance, those waiting to give their samples get up from the cement platform where they are sitting to get a better view.
The facility, which claims to be equipped to test 10,000 samples a day, has only been testing around 7,000 RT-PCR samples.
The super-specialty ward of Sir Sunderlal Hospital is the biggest Covid treatment centre in not just Varanasi, but for all of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
“We have around 2,300 beds in the entire hospital, and 400 of these are in the new super-specialty building reserved for Covid patients — 150 ICU beds and rest with oxygen facility. For the last several days, the occupancy has been almost full. Each day, around 35-40 patients move out — most recover, some can’t make it. When that happens, we admit new patients who are in line,” said Sharad Kumar Mathur, Medical Superintendent of the hospital.
While the hospital was bracing for a patient load from 13 districts, these days, says Mathur, patients have been coming from around 20 districts of the state, besides Bihar and Chhattisgarh.
While the hospital does not have a liquid oxygen manufacturing plant, it has an oxygen reservoir of 30 kl capacity, with the gas mostly coming from plants in Bokaro and Jamshedpur.
“The first Covid wave was much easier for us to handle given that the requirement of oxygen and drugs was far less. But we made several important decisions that have come in handy now. This hospital was one of the first few facilities in the state to be turned into a dedicated Covid hospital last year. We started with just 30 basic beds, but we soon set up a 16-bed ICU and increased the number of beds to 110. Even after the first wave, we never reduced the number of beds. Another important decision was increase the capacity of our oxygen reservoir from 10 kl to 30 kl last October,” he said.
Given that a lot of patients from outside come to the hospital for treatment, the administration has decided to continue almost all non-Covid facilities, though it has ended up stretching the hospital to its limits. According to Mathur, around 110 of their healthcare staff — roughly one-fourth of the total — are actively infected by the coronavirus.
Around 11 km away, the ground floor of the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) Hospital, a Covid vaccination centre, is almost empty around 3 pm. A security guard says the vaccination process that began at 9 am ended at 1 pm after all the vials ran out. According to data on the Co-Win portal, as of April 30, at least 2,92,036 vaccine doses have been administrated in Varanasi, with 57,744 having received both their doses.
On the first floor of the hospital, patients, most of them with oxygen masks on, are lying on their beds while their attendants are lying on the floor, fanning newspapers to beat the afternoon heat. In one of the rooms is Awadhesh Kumar Gupta, attending to his 83-year-old father.
“After he started having breathing problems, on April 13, we got an antigen test that returned negative. But his breathing trouble continued so I took him to a private hospital that started treating him for Covid. But his oxygen level fell to 82, and the hospital did not have liquid oxygen. I tried moving to another hospital, but at least 15 private ones said they have no beds. I finally brought him here that night. Here too, they told me to take him to BHU since he does not have an RTPCR positive report. However, by the grace of God, I pleaded with a senior doctor who was on a visit and finally we got a bed. He is recovering now,” said Awadhesh, an advocate.
The government, which is being criticised for not doing much to strengthen healthcare infrastructure after the first wave subsided, is now scrambling to build three new oxygen plants in Varanasi — one each at Shiv Prasad Gupta Hospital, Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital and Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital.
According to Varanasi Police Commissioner A Satish Ganesh, over the last ten days, the transportation of liquid oxygen from Bokaro and Jamshedpur through trains and road has helped further.
However, the fight for the precious gas is especially acute for patients in home isolation.
Outside an oxygen plant in Ramnagar, people wait for hours in the scorching sun to get their oxygen cylinders refilled. After a recent crackdown on black-marketing of liquid oxygen, refilling prices here are now fixed — Rs 500 for a bigger cylinder and Rs 200 for a smaller one.
The oxygen plants at hospitals are expected to start running in a month. Meanwhile, the lines outside oxygen suppliers keep getting longer.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.