COVID-19 Second Wave

Second wave overwhelms Delhi’s health care facilities and crematoriums

Print edition : May 21, 2021

At a crematorium in New Delhi on April 29, multiple funeral pyres are burning for people who lost their lives to COVID-19. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

Even as health care facilities are overwhelmed by the massive surge in infections and crematoriums are fast running out of space and firewood, the State government and the Centre are indulging in a blame game.

The situation in Delhi is nothing short of grim, with hospitals complaining of bed and oxygen shortages. The health care infrastructure has been thrown into a tailspin. Harrowing pictures of patients dying unable to get admission to hospitals have continued to flood newspapers and TV screens, and a conspicuous blame game has raged between the State government and the Centre.

On April 28, Delhi recorded 25,986 fresh COVID-19 cases, a gradual increase from the 20,201 and 24,149 infections recorded on April 26 and April 27 respectively. In the last 15 days alone, Delhi has added about 3,45,000 positive cases. The daily death count has been a matter of worry, with the highest ever daily death toll of 381 occurring on April 27. On April 28, the number was 368.

As hospitals report scarcity of oxygen, black marketeering and hoarding have been going on unchecked, earning brickbats for Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s government from the Delhi High Court. On April 27, the court pulled up the government saying that it had failed to monitor oxygen distribution to hospitals and prevent individuals and hoarders from stockpiling essential medicines. “Set your house in order. Enough is enough. If you can’t, we will ask the Central government officers to take over. We can’t let people die like this,” the court observed.

However, the Kejriwal government accused neighbouring States of wilfully stalling oxygen supplies to it even as patients continued to gasp for breath. On April 29, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said that the State Police of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana were trying to block the supply of oxygen to Delhi. “This jungle raj has been going on for three days. Some hospitals in Delhi have run out of oxygen completely. They don’t have any option available. I have been receiving calls, messages, emails. We have been making internal, makeshift arrangements, but this cannot continue for long,” he said. Sisodia appealed to the Central government to ensure a steady supply of oxygen even if that meant calling out the paramilitary forces.

The Delhi government also alleged that the Centre was discriminating against it by delivering far fewer oxygen concentrators to it compared with other States. The Delhi High Court added substance to these allegations when on April 29 it pulled up the Narendra Modi government over the limited oxygen supply to Delhi. The court asked the Centre to respond to the Delhi government’s submissions regarding the difference between the amount of oxygen demanded by and allocated to various States. The submissions made before the court shed light on the fact that Delhi was not getting its allocated oxygen supply even as States such as Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were getting more than they had requested. The High Court said: “By no means are we interested in getting for Delhi more than what’s required at the cost of another State. However, if the submissions are to be accepted, the Centre needs to explain the chart.”

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The State and the Centre have been at loggerheads ever since Chief Minister Kejriwal live-streamed an in-house meeting of Chief Ministers chaired by the Prime Minister. Modi appeared to be agitated over the live-streaming and expressed his disapproval during the virtual meeting itself. The Delhi government later clarified that it had had no instructions from the Centre that the proceedings were to be kept confidential. In the live stream, Kejriwal is seen asking Modi whether the two crore people of Delhi should go without oxygen just because the State did not have an oxygen plant. When this footage went viral on social media, it showed the Centre in a bad light.

Kejriwal was, however, not without his share of faux pas. On April 28, his government came under severe criticism and scrutiny over discrepancies in the cumulative figures relating to COVID-19 cases, recoveries and deaths. While the cumulative number of deaths on April 27 was stated to be 15,009, the bulletin issued on April 28 observed that the number was 14,616. This when 368 deaths were registered on April 28. Getting a lot of flak for the discrepancy, the government corrected the figures on April 29 morning, noting that the number of deaths stood at 15,377. The number of total cases was also corrected.

Chaos in crematoriums

Delhi continued to appal people with chaotic scenes at crematoriums. With municipal-run crematoriums facing a shortage of wood for funeral pyres in the face of surging COVID-19 fatalities, North Delhi Mayor Jai Prakash on April 28 urged the Chief Minister to direct the Forest Department to ensure a smooth supply of firewood to these facilities. The Mayor also asked for at least 100 ambulances or hearse vans to be made available to municipal corporations to transport patients to health care facilities or take the dead to cremation grounds.

Several crematoriums in Delhi had to build makeshift funeral pyres as their existing capacity was clearly inadequate to accommodate the number of corpses they were getting. At the Sarai Kale Khan crematorium, at least 27 new pyres were reported to have been built and dozens more are being added in a nearby park. It is reported that the administration is also looking for additional space near the city’s Yamuna riverbed to cremate the dead. The Ghazipur crematorium in East Delhi added 20 more pyres in a parking lot.

The rising graph of fatalities has in some cases led to scuffles between attendants of patients and doctors. Talking about one such incident that took place at the Apollo Hospital in the Sarita Vihar locality, a hospital spokesperson said: “About seven to eight hospital staff, including doctors and security, have been injured after being attacked by relatives of a COVID-19 patient at our hospital in Sarita Vihar. The patient was brought to the hospital and needed ICU, but we didn’t have ICU beds and we informed them. We gave the patient oxygen and emergency care, but the patient passed away. The relatives then started attacking the staff.” The hospital staff sustained minor injuries.

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Meanwhile, the Delhi government extended the lockdown by a week, to May 3, in a bid to arrest the alarming spread of COVID-19 in the capital. However, several organisations and groups are already demanding that the lockdown be extended to May 15. The Confederation of All India Traders, a traders’ body, too, supported the call.

From May 1, as vaccination opens for people in the 18-44 age bracket, officials in Delhi told the media that people with comorbidities would be given preference. The Delhi government has placed an order with manufacturers for over 1.3 crore doses. The vaccine is expected to be delivered in phases.