India’s Supreme Court said it would set up a task force as part of efforts to improve the distribution of medical oxygen across the healthcare sector, as the country battles a brutal second wave of Covid-19.
The court, which has been critical of the government’s handling of the deepening healthcare crisis, announced on Saturday that it had established a committee to set up an “effective and transparent mechanism” to allocate oxygen supplies to states and hospitals.
The development comes after weeks of bickering between prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration and state governments over oxygen supplies. The 12-member committee will “facilitate a public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge”, the court added.
India reported over 400,000 new Covid cases on Saturday and more than 4,000 deaths, despite large parts of the country being under various degrees of curfews and lockdown. Tamil Nadu, a hub of India’s automotive industry, this weekend announced it was imposing a two-week lockdown starting on Monday.
The coronavirus surge that has overwhelmed India’s health system has resulted in a black market for oxygen as wealthy citizens seek out life-saving medical care, with police seizing hundreds of oxygen concentrators stashed in upmarket New Delhi restaurants.
In a series of tweets in recent days, police said they had recovered 524 concentrators from a farmhouse on the outskirts of the capital and in restaurants in Delhi’s popular Khan Market.
Number of confirmed coronavirus infections in India
Police said the concentrators, which are used to deliver pure oxygen to Covid-19 patients, were being sold for at least 3.5 times their normal price.
Authorities are searching for the restaurant’s owner, Navneet Kalra, a socialite often photographed with Bollywood stars and cricket players. At least five others have already been arrested.
Some have praised those that source life-saving equipment for coronavirus patients unable to obtain hospital care.
“My experience is that 4 people I forwarded that connect too obtained OCs from him that saved lives [sic],” tweeted Prasanto Roy, a Delhi-based policy consultant, of Kalra’s network. He added that the oxygen concentrators were “promptly delivered” and “the cheapest over the market”.
Roy said the raids would have a “chilling effect” on those trying to import oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment to help alleviate the crisis.
Over the past month, social media in the country has been flooded with pleas for help from people looking for oxygen, life-saving drugs or hospital beds for critically ill loved ones. Hospitals’ oxygen supplies have in some cases been exhausted, leading to deaths of patients.
The shortage of supplies such as medicines has created strong financial incentives for those willing to engage in fraud, piracy and counterfeiting of drugs.
Police last month raided several industrial plants being used for the manufacture and packaging of fake vials of remdesivir, an injectable antiviral drug used for the treatment of seriously ill Covid-19 patients in hospitals. At least 14 people were arrested.
India has confirmed more than 22m coronavirus infections and more than 242,000 deaths since the pandemic began. But epidemiologists believe the true number is far higher as India’s limited testing capacity and disincentives for reporting deaths from the disease mean many cases are likely to go uncounted.