Coronavirus: Why is India facing an oxygen shortage?
The second wave of COVID-19 has exposed flaws in India's health system as many regions report a shortage of medical oxygen. Social media is rife with requests for oxygen cylinders/concentrators as several urban centers are struggling with medical oxygen to treat patients facing a drop in oxygen saturation. Considering there is no shortage in production, why is it that India is running for oxygen?
India's daily oxygen production capacity is 7,127 metric tonnes (MT), official figures indicate. Before the pandemic, India required just 750-800 MT of liquid medical oxygen (LMO), while the rest was for industrial use. By April 12, India's medical oxygen requirement had increased to 3,842 MT, which further increased to 6,785 MT on April 22. Since April 18, the industrial supply has been completely disrupted.
Siddharth Jain—the director of Inox Air Products, among India's biggest oxygen manufacturers—told Moneycontrol last week, "When you look at it from an all-India perspective, we are very comfortable as a country." "The issue is that supply is available in places that are very far away from the demand. We are trying to find a way to transport the same," he said.
Experts say only 20% of people who contract the virus have some symptoms, while only 5-10% need oxygen support. However, India currently has 28.8 lakh active cases, which means an estimated 1.4-2.8 lakh cases need oxygen support across the country.
LMO is manufactured using cryogenic distillation techniques to compress atmospheric air, which is fed into distillation columns to get liquid oxygen. The liquid oxygen is filled into jumbo tankers for storage at -180°C and transported to distributors. Distributors convert the liquid oxygen into gaseous form, compress it, feed it into cylinders, and transport it to hospitals. Some stock is sold to local vendors.
India has 1,172 oxygen cryogenic tankers for road transport. Before the pandemic, the number of tankers was enough, but now they are scarce. Reportedly, the travel time for medical oxygen from the manufacturer to a patient's bed has increased from 3-5 days to 6-8 days. India does not have enough cryogenic tankers to ensure 24×7 road transport of medical oxygen.
The shortage of cryogenic transport truckers and logistics has increased the time of transport, which has caused a surge in the price of refilling cylinders. Medical facilities located in remote areas are especially facing a bigger crisis due to transportation issues. People have started hoarding oxygen concentrators and cylinders out of panic. This has caused the renting and purchase costs to nearly double.
India is expected to receive 50,000 MT of medical oxygen through the import route. Nitrogen and argon tankers are being converted into oxygen-carrying vehicles. Tankers are being imported and new ones are being manufactured. The Air Force is also airlifting empty tankers to accelerate one-way travel. Trains have also started ferrying tankers. Meanwhile, the government has banned the industrial use of oxygen.
The government has also sanctioned the installation of 162 Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) plants to directly use atmospheric air to generate oxygen. For this, the government had allocated Rs. 201.58 crore. As of April 18, only 33 plants had been set up around the country. Sadly, the government took eight months after the pandemic began to invite bids for the plants.