Oxygen Situation

Why India is facing an oxygen shortage during the second covid wave?

The second wave of the Covid-19 has left infected patients gasping for breath as hospitals in some states continue to face an acute shortage of medical oxygen. Many hospitals in Delhi and few other states are currently operating on the edge due to a shortage of medical oxygen.

Over the past few weeks, many breathless Covid-19 patients have died due to the unavailability of medical oxygen in hospitals situated in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

A flurry of SOS messages on Twitter and other social media platforms show the severity of the oxygen shortage in these states. Meanwhile, opposition party leaders and affected citizens have slammed the Centre and state governments for the shortage of medical oxygen, which is necessary for hospitals to keep critical Covid patients alive.

Are Oxygen Exports to Blame?

Oxygen export data from the Department of Commerce showed that the country exported twice as much oxygen to the world during the first 10 months of FY21 in comparison to the previous financial year.

India had exported 9,301 metric tonnes of oxygen across the world between April 2020 and January 2021. In comparison, the country had exported only 4,502 metric tonnes of oxygen in FY20. The oxygen supplied was in liquid form and can be used for both industrial and medical use.

However, the demand for oxygen in India was not as high during the aforementioned period. During the first wave, the demand for liquid medical oxygen (LMO) increased from 700 metric tonnes per day (MTPD) to 2,800 MTPD. But during the second wave, it skyrocketed to 5,000 MTPD. It was only in the second week of April when demand for medical oxygen in India witnessed a five-fold jump, according to Crisil.

While many are blaming the government over India’s FY21 oxygen exports, the fact that the country produces over 7,000 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen per day indicates that the problem lies somewhere else.

Uneven Distribution and Rapid Covid Surge

Demand for medical oxygen skyrocketed in India soon after Maharashtra started witnessing asharper of Covid-19 cases since Feburary. The situation worsened as the second Covid wave hit with blistering force in March.

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director General Balram Bhargava had pointed out earlier that shortness of breath has emerged as a major concern among Covid-19 patients during the second wave. This is why the need for medical oxygen has almost doubled.

At the moment, India produces more than 7,000 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen per day, which is enough to support the current requirement of medical oxygen. However, uneven supply and logistical issues have led to an oxygen crisis in some states.

Inox Air Products Director Siddharth Jain has told that India has enough oxygen production to meet the existing demand but added that some states are facing a shortage due to distribution issues. The company produces over 50 per cent of the medical oxygen requirement in the country. Some other major manufacturers are Linde India, Goyal MG Gases Pvt Ltd, National Oxygen Limited.

He added, “ When you look at it from an all-India perspective, we are very comfortable as a country. At present, 7,200 metric tonnes per day (MTPD) of oxygen is manufactured in India in liquid form, which is supplied to hospitals. The current demand is 5,000 MTPD only”. He further highlighted that the shortage in medical oxygen supply is being faced primarily across states in Western India like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The demand has now started picking up in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh due to a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases.

It is worth mentioning that states that have seen the sharpest surge of Covid-19 cases are primarily facing an oxygen crisis. Maharashtra is one such state as it requires more medical oxygen than what it produces at the moment.

Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh does not even have oxygen manufacturing plants and is relying on other states for oxygen supply.

Shortage of Cylinders and Tankers

If India continues to witness a sharp surge in daily Covid-19 cases, the oxygen shortage could be felt by more states. To add to the woes, logistical issues in supplying oxygen has also become a major issue for companies that manufacture liquid oxygen.

The 24×7 availability of cryogenic tankers — necessary for transporting liquid oxygen — is difficult given the fact that many hospitals are facing a shortage at the same time. The need of the hour is to manufacture more cryogenic tanks, which can take up to four months. The shortage of such tankers has led to a significant delay in inter-state transportation of oxygen from manufacturers to hospitals. It may be noted that medical facilities and healthcare centres located in remote areas face a bigger crisis due to longer transportation time.

In such a scenario, the use of trains to supply oxygen to states are also likely to ease the shortage that some states are facing. The decision to let suppliers use argon and nitrogen tanks for oxygen supply will also help ease the shortage in some states.

The government’s decision to import 50,000 metric tonnes of oxygen is also likely to help mitigate the demand crisis in the next few days as operations have already started.

The Centre has also sanctioned the installation of 162 Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) oxygen plants in public health facilities across states. The plants will augment medical oxygen capacity by 154.19 metric tonnes, according to the health ministry.

“Out of 162 PSA plants sanctioned by the union government, 33 have already been installed – five in Madhya Pradesh, four in Himachal Pradesh, three each in Chandigarh, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand, two each in Bihar, Karnataka, and Telangana; and one each in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh,” the health ministry added.

Despite these efforts, a lot will depend on whether the country manages to reduce daily Covid-19 infections over the next few weeks. If the chain of infections is not broken by the end of May, India could witness an alarming oxygen crisis