‘I don’t know what else I can do’: Panic and chaos inside Delhi’s hospitals as Covid overwhelms capital

The healthcare system has collapsed under unprecedented pressure, reports Stuti Mishra from India’s capital

Tuesday 04 May 2021 21:09
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<p>Health workers attend to Covid-19 patients at a makeshift Delhi hospital </p>

Health workers attend to Covid-19 patients at a makeshift Delhi hospital

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very morning for the last five days, Sunil Kumar Gupta has come to stand in the scorching heat outside a makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Delhi, clutching a bag laden with homemade food, to try and find out if his wife is still alive.

Sheela Gupta was supposed to have been one of the lucky ones after she was successfully admitted at the paramilitary-run Sardar Patel Covid Care Centre, an emergency hospital and one of the very few facilities in India’s national capital that has beds available for the victims of the country’s devastating second coronavirus wave. 

Amid soaring infections that have seen the country rise above 20 million cases in total, 355,000 of which were added on Tuesday, Delhi’s healthcare system has collapsed.

Families face a daily struggle to acquire basic medical supplies by any means they can, and even hospitals and Covid facilities like this centre in the affluent south of the city face repeated uncertainty over their oxygen supplies.

Like many others, Gupta, brought his wife to the Chattarpur-based centre after being refused from dozens of hospitals across the national capital region, failed by a system of official dashboards and helplines that are supposed to guide citizens through the health crisis. “I called each and every number available online, there were no beds,” he says.

What can we do? There are no beds available anywhere

Sunil Kumar Gupta, Delhi resident

Yet now that he has finally found a bed for his wife, he says the facilities are so terrible here that he wants to take her back.

“A woman next to my wife in the centre died, and there was no one to attend to her for hours. The doctors are busy, no one comes to check on the patients for hours,” he tells The Independent.

“My wife was administered oxygen just once after three days, she has been facing difficulties in breathing and her oxygen level was down to 69 [a level of 95 and above is considered normal]. But there’s no one to attend to her.”

Gupta, 39 and a cab driver by profession, says he is discriminated against by those running the centre.

“There are no facilities for the poor,” he says. “If you have connections you can go inside and take care of your patient, they say they provide food and water. I, on the other hand, haven’t even been able to see my wife.”

Gupta says the food he brings from home for his wife takes hours to reach her.

“She was just a few feet away, I gave food to the guard, it took them four hours to hand it over to her,” he says, as a tear drops from his eyes. “Such is the level of mismanagement at this centre, but what can we do? There are no beds available anywhere.”

The emergency hospital, which was hailed for being set up “in record time” last year when India was first hit by Covid-19, was shut down in February this year after the government proclaimed that it had all but beaten the global pandemic. 

Since then, an alarming spike in cases has plunged the country into crisis, and the 500-bed facility reopened on 26 April after several days in which Covid patients faced long waits outside most hospitals in Delhi, dozens dying at the gates gasping for breath as they were told the city’s ICU and oxygen beds were full.

It is now more than two weeks since Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal addressed the city to declare the capital had almost run out of ICU beds and oxygen and appealed to Modi for emergency relief. Yet while more than 40 countries have offered India international aid in the days since, healthcare facilities in Delhi have seen little to no improvement.

Cremation grounds and graveyards are working round the clock, as people continue to die outside hospitals while waiting for a bed or in home quarantine. Many will not even be registered in the country’s official Covid death toll, as access to testing has become severely limited.

Ambulances could be seen lined up outside each of half a dozen hospitals visited by The Independent in the past few days, with a new patient arriving every few minutes. There are long queues of patients and caregivers inside, with several government hospitals being forced to expand their waiting areas in order to prevent crowding outside the gates.

At South Delhi’s Batra hospital, several family members noticed on Saturday that the oxygen levels of their loved ones were falling suddenly. Only after they reached out to staff for help were they informed that the hospital was running out of oxygen. Twelve people, including a doctor, died in the hospital that day.

“We had no idea what was happening; when I approached the staff, they asked me to go and arrange for an oxygen cylinder for my father,” says Nakul (name changed), who had moved his 56-year-old father to the private hospital from Noida in the hope of better treatment.

“I understand the staff are busy, but no one informed us in advance that something like this could happen. They should have at least warned us, we only found out when the supply was almost depleted,” he says. “I ran, I tried everything and arranged a cylinder for my father, but [now] he is in the ICU and he needs more oxygen.”

Many healthcare workers are at their wits’ end, worn out by a crisis that has stretched them beyond all limits.

Covid patients get treatment at the casualty ward in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan (LNJP) hospital, in Delhi

In another South Delhi hospital dedicated to pregnant women and children, The Independent saw a fight break out between a doctor and a patient’s relative on Monday, as the hospital raised the alarm over an oxygen shortage.

“We have a supply vehicle waiting 4km away, we are waiting for it,” the doctor, who did not want to be named, said. “Our staff are trying our best to help people; sometimes I carry cylinders on my back and take them inside, I don’t know what else I can do in this situation.”

Like the thousands of patients whose urgent appeals flood Twitter in India every day, hospitals themselves continue to rely on SOS calls posted to social media for oxygen supply, even as the government insists there is no shortage of oxygen in the country as a whole.

Outside the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan hospital in the heart of New Delhi, close to the city’s famous Gandhi memorial, dozens of people queue just to put in a request for their family member to be considered for a bed on a Covid ward.

They file past a board outside the building stating that of a total of 1,400 beds in the hospital, none are available.

A guard says the figure on the board hasn’t changed for days, and there is no way of knowing when things are going to get any better.

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