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New Delhi, India — Shubham Kaushik is COVID positive, but he stood outside an oxygen distribution center for hours in the 100 degree heat with hundreds of others, many of whom have been there since four in the morning. Kaushik told VICE News that he had no other choice; his entire family is infected with COVID-19 and waiting in line to refill oxygen cylinders is their only hope to stay alive.
Waiting for oxygen alongside Kaushik was Fatima, whose 16 year old daughter is chronically ill with the coronavirus in a nearby hospital. She only has a few hours of oxygen left and the hospital is completely out. Fatima is painfully aware that without this oxygen, her daughter's breathing will stop. Her only option is to source the oxygen and bring it to the hospital herself.
Kaushik and Fatima are not alone: Oxygen demands in India have increased by seven times since last month. And because of the booming demand, scammers have taken advantage of the shortage.
India's first surge in COVID-19 infections began last summer, but many in the country believed that India had beaten COVID-19, and in January the government repeatedly declared victory over the virus.
Today, India’s reality is far from victorious. The combination of a relatively small COVID-19 relief package that forced many Indians to return to work and a relaxation in the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations led to a lethal second wave. With more than 3 million active cases, over 275,000 daily new cases, and nearly 4,000 daily deaths, India is in the midst of a catastrophe.
And there’s nowhere to put the afflicted: “There are patients dying in ambulances, looking for a hospital bed, moving from hospital to hospital, running out of options,” Sumit Ray, a doctor at Holy Family Hospital in New Delhi, told VICE News.
Ray said that this level of disaster could have been avoided. “We saw the peak happening,” he said. “Lots of us warned the government that this was going to happen.” Instead of listening to medical professionals, the government dismantled the infrastructure that was built during the first wave, including prefabricated hospitals, and failed to prepare extra supplies.
Even if a patient is lucky enough to be admitted into a hospital, many hospitals are out of oxygen— a necessary course of treatment for those with serious COVID-19 symptoms. SCL Gupta, the medical director at Batra Hospital in New Delhi told VICE News that twelve patients, including one of the hospital’s senior consultants, had died because the hospital had run out of oxygen for just 80 minutes.
With such limited supply of oxygen from the central government, along with a desperate need, fraudsters have profited. Nidhi Suresh was scammed out of $347 by an ‘oxygen seller’ online who required her to transfer the funds before he delivered the cylinders. She never received the oxygen and he’s blocked her number.
After posting her experience online, Suresh was flooded with an overwhelming amount of heartbreaking stories from those in a similar situation. “One particular message that really affected me was this one girl who said that she lost her grandad waiting for this person's cylinder,” she said.
Suresh believes most of the victims won’t even file a police report due to a “lack of trust in the police system to do anything.” (India’s government and the Delhi Police did not respond to requests for comment.) These scams, besides heartbreaking, can be dangerous: The New York Times recently reported on a business called Varsha Engineering that was repainting fire extinguishers to sell them as oxygen tanks; the oxygen, critics said, could cause these repurposed extinguishers to explode.
Still, there are others doing all they can to help. Surjeet Singh has been volunteering to care for patients at a local Gurdwara, or Sikh temple. The Gurdwara is often the last hope for those critically ill after having been turned away from hospitals and unable to locate any oxygen themselves.
It’s not just critically sick patients who are coming to the Gurdwara for help, said Singh. “Even hospital staff are taking oxygen from us. They are borrowing cylinders from us saying, ‘Give us two cylinders for two days. Our patients are dying. We have no oxygen.’”
Singh knows the risks and he has already come down with the virus twice, but he feels helpless. “This is the government’s job,” he said. “But they’re not doing anything.”
Video by Ahmer Khan, Angad Singh, Karishma Vyas, Puneet Sharma, and Gabrielle Caplan. Video edited by Adam Deniston.