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This week, India crossed a grim milestone—over 200,000 people have officially died due to the Covid-19 virus. The situation in the country is dire—patients and their desperate families are scrambling to secure potentially life-saving resources to avoid joining the long queues forming outside the country’s overburdened crematoriums. Social media platforms remain cluttered with urgent appeals for everything from drugs like remdesivir and favipiravir to blood plasma. The most glaring shortfall, though, has been Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO).

Pre-Covid, India’s LMO needs were a fraction of what they are now. According to industry estimates, the pan-India demand for LMO was 700 tonnes per day (TPD) before the pandemic touched ground on Indian soil. In 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, this demand shot up 4X to 2,800 TPD. The requirement during the ongoing second wave, though, outstrips even that. According to the Union government’s admission in the courts, India now needs 8,000 TPD. 

Resources are now being mobilised on a war footing to help meet this target. The Indian government has announced that 500 oxygen plants will be set up across the country over the next three months. The country is also set to import 10,000 Phillips-made oxygen concentrators, while a further 25,000 devices have also been ordered from China.

All of this will likely lessen the breathless demand for LMO in the testing times ahead. However, it will come as scant relief for those currently reeling from the current shortage.

On 19 April, even as the Ministry of Railways hurriedly dispatched a train carrying empty tankers to Vizag to fetch LMO for Maharashtra’s hospitals, Indrajeet Ghosh was losing hope. His Covid-positive mother’s oxygen levels were dipping toward 70. CT scans of her lungs showed 65% damage. The hospital she was admitted in—a 40-bed facility in Mumbai’s western suburb of Andheri—had run out of oxygen.

With the Railways’ tankers not expected for another six days, the onus of finding oxygen cylinders fell to Ghosh. With regular channels depleted, he turned to the black market. Ghosh approached three different vendors; each offered him the same solution—7,000-litre oxygen cylinders—but at wildly different prices.

“One vendor sold me a cylinder for Rs 20,000 ($270). Another lent it to me for a refundable deposit of Rs 10,000 ($135), with a Rs 1,500 ($20) charge for every refill. The third vendor lent me a cylinder for a deposit of Rs 5,000 ($70) and a free refill,” Ghosh told The Ken. His mother needed a refilled cylinder every six hours, as she required close to 30 litres every minute. Ghosh refilled the cylinder 12 times but her condition continued to deteriorate. Eventually, she was moved to the Intensive Care Unit of another hospital, where she was put on a ventilator. 


Maitri Porecha

Maitri writes about everything health for The Ken. For close to 10 years now, she has navigated hospital corridors in her search for a good story. In a past life, when she was not a journalist, she used to teach French at her neighbourhood school. Also an avid fan of forensics, she is always up for decoding mysteries in her free time.

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