We have “only 45 minutes of oxygen left”, a top private hospital in Haryana tweeted on Thursday evening, tagging the Union home minister in its SOS. In the past few days, we have seen the bizarre situation of hospital chains approaching courts for late night emergency hearings for the uninterrupted supply of the gas and even pleading on social media platforms.
This unprecedented situation should never have arisen. It is over a year since the pandemic broke out; medical oxygen is one of the basic requirements and learning from the first wave, production should have been ramped up across the country. The Centre has belatedly woken up and announced that 162 oxygen plants had been sanctioned, of which it says 33 have already been installed. But take the case of Odisha, where seven plants were sanctioned six months ago, with the installation process directly under the Union government. Not one of them is operational yet as complacency set in once corona transmission fell late last year.
With India touching a new high of 3 lakh Covid cases per day, the lack of oxygen capacity has also led to the ugly spectacle of states not allowing the free movement of tankers containing the gas across borders. For instance, the Delhi High Court noted the allocation for the national capital was not being respected by other states. With similar cases in other High Courts, the Supreme Court was forced to step in and asked the Centre to chalk out a national plan, including on oxygen supply.
For now, the Centre is resorting to ad hoc decisions. Its move to divert about 45 metric tonnes of medical oxygen from a plant near Chennai to Andhra and Telangana made officials in Tamil Nadu question the compulsory diversion. The TN Health Secretary, J Radhakrishnan, wondered why the Centre diverted oxygen, when the state—currently one of the few that has an oxygen surplus—would have readily supplied it to others in a crisis situation. This is not the time for arguments and disagreements. The Centre has to come up with a countrywide arrangement for oxygen distribution as the SC pointed out, since impromptu decisions and an inefficient distribution network will only hurt Covid crisis management.