As the 65-year-old freelance journalist’s complaint went viral on Twitter, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s media advisor responded to him next afternoon, asking for more details. By then, Srivastava’s oxygen levels had fallen to 31. At 4.20 pm on Saturday, his son, Harshit Srivastava, tweeted to say his father had died – waiting for an ambulance. “We did not get anything,” he told Scroll.in on the phone. “I called every number for an oxygen cylinder but no one picked up.”
About 7 km from their home, the government-run Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Civil Hospital has been waiting for an oxygen generation plant. It is one of 150 district hospitals across India for which the Central government floated tenders in October, eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, to create units that can produce medical oxygen on site.
But six months later, the oxygen plant is yet to be installed. Had it been in place, breathless Lucknow residents like Srivastava would have stood a better chance of surviving Covid-19. In Navsari, Gujarat, another district hospital due to get an oxygen generation plant has had to refuse admission in the last few days to several Covid-19 patients who required oxygen.
On October 21, the Central Medical Services Society, an autonomous institution under the Union health ministry, floated a tender online calling for bidders to establish Pressure Swing Adsorption oxygen plants in 150 district hospitals across the country. The PSA technology separates gases from a mixture in the atmosphere to generate concentrated oxygen that can be supplied to hospital beds through a pipeline, negating the need for hospitals to buy pressurised liquid oxygen from other sources.
An independent investigation by Scroll.in revealed a disturbing picture of mounting delays. We called more than 60 hospitals across 14 states where the new oxygen plants are expected to come up. Only 11 units had been installed and just five were operational, as per interviews with hospital officials.