India Covid crisis: Foreign embassies turn to volunteer groups for help sourcing oxygen in Delhi

Opposition groups chastised government for not providing foreign embassies with oxygen cylinders

Maroosha Muzaffar
Monday 03 May 2021 14:13
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<p>File: A healthcare worker holds an oxygen cylinder outside a factory as he waits to get it refilled</p>

File: A healthcare worker holds an oxygen cylinder outside a factory as he waits to get it refilled

The Indian government has criticised foreign missions to Delhi after at least two reached out to non-governmental volunteer groups for assistance with oxygen supplies during the city’s Covid second wave.

The matter came to light when the opposition Congress party’s youth wing posted messages on social media saying it had successfully delivered oxygen to both the New Zealand and Philippines embassies after receiving requests from them for support.

On Saturday night, the chief of the Congress youth wing B V Srinivas had posted photos of volunteers outside the Philippines embassy in Delhi with oxygen cylinders. Congress MP and former minister Jairam Ramesh had tweeted in response to these pictures accusing India’s foreign ministry (the Ministry of External Affairs or MEA) of “sleeping” as foreign embassies sent out SOS calls for oxygen. He tweeted: “As an Indian citizen I’m stunned that the youth wing of the opposition party is attending to SOS calls from foreign embassies. Is the MEA sleeping @DrSJaishankar?”

Separately, on Sunday the New Zealand High Commission posted an SOS message on Twitter requesting an oxygen cylinder and tagging Mr Srinivas. He responded saying: “Right away. Please share further details in DM.” As soon as youth wing workers reached the embassy, Mr Srinivas tweeted: “We have reached New Zealand High Commission with oxygen cylinders. Please open the gates and save a soul on time.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Indian government suggested the oxygen had not been urgently needed, telling foreign missions that “given the pandemic situation, all are urged not to hoard essential supplies, including oxygen”.

Foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said officials had checked in with the Philippines embassy. “This was an unsolicited supply as they had no Covid cases. Clearly for cheap publicity by you know who.” He added: “Giving away cylinders like this when there are people in desperate need of oxygen is simply appalling.”

After the backlash, the New Zealand High Commission deleted its SOS call on Twitter and posted another tweet saying: “We are trying all sources to arrange for oxygen cylinders urgently and our appeal has unfortunately been misinterpreted, for which we are sorry.”

Mr Srinivas told the Indian Express that one of the youth wing volunteers received a call from someone on behalf of the Philippines embassy for an oxygen cylinder. The volunteer, identified as Manu Dixit by local media, said that the caller told him to arrange oxygen cylinders for two Covid patients inside the Philippines embassy. “They requested ten small cylinders. We did not have small cylinders. We arranged two jumbo cylinders.”

Speaking on Monday, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern admitted the High Commission had failed to follow the proper protocols and should have gone to the government with its request for assistance.

“But I should recognise that we do have a local staff member who is within the compound who’s been very unwell,” she told TVNZ’s Breakfast programme.

On Sunday, the official number of Covid-19 deaths in India was recorded at 3,689 — the highest number since the pandemic began – dipping to around 3,400 on Monday. It is widely documented that India is under-reporting the actual number of its Covid deaths, however, due to issues recording deaths at home and ongoing limitations on testing.

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