National Post (Latest Edition)
Nation in despair as cases fill India’s hospital beds
Health care overwhelmed by COVID surge
The anguished voice at the end of the line quickly apologized for waking me at 1:30 a.m. but was desperate and insistent.
The caller explained their 54-year-old aunt’s blood oxygen levels had plummeted and asked if I might know a doctor in Delhi who could help. The caller explained they had been ringing hospitals for hours and no one was picking up.
In recent days I have received a seemingly endless succession of such calls, as health systems around India have buckled under a tsunami of COVID-19 cases.
The daily tally of cases has accelerated terrifyingly in recent weeks hitting a record 273,810 infections yesterday, up tenfold in little over a month.
Overstretched hospitals have quickly been overwhelmed under such an onslaught. There are no beds left in Delhi and Mumbai, and trying to find treatment for a coughing, gasping relative has become a panicked quest for thousands of families.
To help their prospects, relatives contact anyone who might be able to pull a string, who might have some local clout, who might have some leverage, or who might just know more than them.
This includes calling local doctors, officials, those with political ties, or in my case a journalist who had once interviewed them.
Even the best-connected are struggling and outside of the emergency room at Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital, Gotam Rajani told The Daily Telegraph he was one of the lucky ones after spending a frantic 72 hours hunting a bed for his 75-year-old aunt.
“Neither my aunt or uncle have been able to get a bed and I am so relieved to at least get one bed now, for my aunt,” he said, as a succession of patients were wheeled into the emergency room, surrounded by distraught family members.
The hospital had laid out beds in the lobby and converted a whole floor to a COVID ward, but must still turn patients away, said Dr. Kriti Aggarwal, an exhausted 26-year-old resident medical officer inside.
“The manpower here is much less because we are flooded with patients in both the wards and the triage areas and we don’t have enough doctors.
“The capacity is full, if you haven’t called in advance we cannot take you. We tell the relatives to find some other hospital.”
A new, more transmissible “double mutant” variant is feared to be behind the surge in cases. India has little data on the new strain, but early analysis suggests its mutations make it both more transmissible and able to reinfect patients. The leap in infections has seen British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put India on the U.K.’S red list of countries requiring passengers to undergo hotel quarantine on arrival, as well as postpone a scheduled visit to India next week.
Delhi ordered a six-day lockdown on Monday as overall infections passed the 15-million mark, second only to the U.S.
Nearly 180,000 deaths have been confirmed, but a lack of testing and a practice by many Indian states of only recording COVID fatalities when there are no co-morbidities means the true tally of both infections and deaths is thought to be many times higher.
“Delhi’s health system is unable to take more patients in big numbers,” chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said.
“If a lockdown isn’t implemented now, the situation will go beyond control.”
Dr. Deepak Baid, head of a major private hospital in Mumbai, said the situation was far worse than during the first wave last year and his hospital had run out of medicines, in addition to beds, which in turn has sparked a nationwide black market for drugs including remdesivir and tocilizumab.
“The second phase that has come in is more of a mutant, which is very infectious, so nearly four times more patients are coming in,” said Baid.
“Definitely there’s a difficulty in getting beds, especially the intensive care and ventilator beds. Even if you get a bed, medicines have become difficult to get because (of) the number of medicines which have been used (and) the demand is much more than the supply.”
Oxygen is also a particular problem. Officials have barred the supply of oxygen to many industries to meet rising demand from hospitals, after patients in the western state of Maharashtra reported travelling for hundreds of miles to find a free bed with an oxygen supply. Clinical demand for the gas has increased to threefifths of India’s production and is expected to rise further, the ministry of health said.
“Hospitalization numbers are so high that the healthcare system is not coping well,” said Dr. Nitin Shinde, head of a major private hospital in Nagpur.
“We have a shortage of a lot of medicines and drugs. The biggest problem is a shortage of oxygen.”
The surge in hospital admissions is feeding into a surge in deaths and cremations. In Ghaziabad, near Delhi, one overwhelmed crematorium has been forced to build new brick platforms for pyres on pavements.
Criticism has mounted over how Narendra Modi’s government has handled the crisis, with millions of Hindu devotees attending the Kumbh Mela festival in the northern Indian town of Haridwar, while election rallies have continued unabated in the states of West Bengal and Assam.
“The government has given up, that is what it feels like here,” said Rajani.
“They just haven’t managed the crisis the second time around.”
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IS A SHORTAGE OF OXYGEN.