“Oxygen, oxygen, can you get me oxygen?”
I wake up this morning to an anguished phone call from a school teacher, whose 46-year-old husband has been battling Covid-19 in an oxygen-starved Delhi hospital.
Here we go again, I tell myself. Just another day of life in a city where breathing has become a luxury for so many.
We work the phone, send SOS calls. Amid the sounds of beeping monitors, the woman tells us that her husband’s oxygen saturation number has dipped to a precariously low 58. A bit later it rises to 62. You are supposed to consult your doctor if the number sinks to 92 or lower.
She tells us she is happy it has gone up. And her husband is still talking and aware.
I text a doctor friend working in critical care.
“Patients remain talkative even when the number hits 40,” she messages me.
I pick up the newspaper. Twenty five critically ill patients have died in a well-known private hospital. The oxygen pressure had been dialled down in critical care and many patients were being given oxygen manually, the hospital said.
There’s a photograph of two men and a woman sharing a cylinder on the front page. Three strangers – caught up in a tragedy brought upon by public laxity and government negligence – sharing a lifeline.
The 40-year-old son of one of the men, a report says, died outside the same hospital a few days ago, waiting for a bed. He had found a stretcher though, the report helpfully said.
That’s what grieving Indians are grateful for now: if you can’t provide beds or medicines or oxygen to save my loved one, at least give them a gurney to rest their corpses.
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As the day progresses, I realise nothing has changed.
Patients are dying because there’s no oxygen. Medicines are still scarce and on the black market. There’s hoarding and panic buying as if we are in a war.
In many ways, we are.
The teacher calls again. The hospital doesn’t even have a spare oxygen flow meter, so she has to get one.
We work the phones, send out Twitter appeals. Someone manages to pick up a device, which is used for regulating supply from the cylinder to the patient.
Despite what the government says, things are going from bad to worse. Oxygen tankers are not making it in time to the city to save patients. There are no beds, few medicines.
Even India’s privileged have no privilege left: a magazine editor called me in the afternoon, looking for an oxygen cylinder for a sick patient, whom he knows.
In the apartment building where I live, residents are trying to buy some oxygen concentrators in case someone “needs help with breathing”. Fifty seven residents are infected and isolated in their homes.
Patients have been left to fend for themselves. For many it’s a slow and gradual road to death. Covid-19 is a disease with too many ambushes.
“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living,” Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, wrote in his piercing memoir, When Breath Becomes Air.
There are only small mercies for the gasping victims of a deadly virus in India today.