Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Ritwick Ghosh has lived in mainland China for over a decade, and is using his Mandarin language skills to act as a facilitator between Chinese suppliers and people in India. Photo: Handout

Oxygen on Taobao: how Chinese and Indian expats are sending life-saving Covid-19 equipment to help combat India’s second wave

  • As India is engulfed by a second wave, Chinese are helping Indian expats source oxygen concentrators from factories or Taobao and send them home
  • China is the world’s biggest manufacturer of oxygen concentrators, but deteriorating ties between Beijing and New Delhi means sourcing them has become complicated
The death toll began to pile up in Ritwick Ghosh’s social circle back in India. First a college friend succumbed to Covid-19, then a close friend’s sister, then another lost a family member. “As long as there is no name or face, it is just a statistic,” he said from Shanghai. “The moment there is a name and a face, it is no longer a statistic.”

Ghosh works for one of the biggest investment funds in China and has lived in the mainland for over a decade. Over the past 10 days, as the devastating second wave of the pandemic sweeps through his homeland, he has been familiarising himself with oxygen concentrators – machines that relieve the stress from the lungs and have the potential to save lives.

“Think of it as an air purifier,” Ghosh said. “Until now I did not even know what the optimum level of oxygen concentration should be in our blood.”

Across India, the demand for medical oxygen continues unabated, with hospitals putting out SOS messages for supplies and people taking to social media to plead for oxygen to keep loved ones alive.

As India’s Covid-19 cases surge, volunteers step in where state failed

Oxygen concentrators have therefore become sought-after devices as they can be operated from home and can aid those who have saturation levels between 88 and 92. Experts say one concentrator could service three patients per month.

Other Indians living in China like Ghosh have been buying oxygen concentrators off Taobao, a popular Chinese e-commerce site, and sending them to India. Couriering a 30kg package containing a 10 litre unit costs anything from 3,200 to 10,500 yuan (US$500-1,600).

China is the world’s biggest manufacturer of oxygen concentrators. But sourcing them has become complicated, given the deteriorating relations between New Delhi and Beijing following a tense 2020 that saw clashes at their Himalayan border.

Despite Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong tweeting about Covid-19 relief supplies being sent, Indian media reports suggest these supplies were commercial procurements and not sent on humanitarian grounds. China, however, maintains it is still waiting on India to accept its offer of help.

In this context, people like Ghosh have become go-betweens. “I am just facilitating information between people who need it in India and suppliers here,” he said. “Many Indians have already tried to order concentrators online or even spoken to Chinese suppliers directly. But since the trust factor is still low between the two countries, they approach me to speak in Mandarin. The mental effort is lower when they know someone who is sitting in China can help.”

A volunteer of a charity group checks an oxygen concentrator at a Covid-19 care centre in Srinagar. Photo: AFP


Chinese factories producing oxygen concentrators are currently running at full capacity, said Hao Nan, a Suzhou-based volunteer and founder of Zhuoming Info Aid, which has been involved in humanitarian relief efforts for other countries hit by the virus, including Italy, Spain, Iran and France.

Using resources from the site, he and other volunteers have been trying to get a clearer picture of what is needed in which Indian city. Last year, soon after the worst was over in Wuhan, he and a group of Chinese volunteers compiled a document detailing their experiences in combating the virus. “A year ago, we tried to deliver our experiences from Wuhan especially for volunteer groups across the world. But I guess it is hard for people to learn from other people.”

Official Chinese social media accounts mock India’s Covid-19 crisis

For now, Hao is focused on procuring supplies. “Just this evening, I tried to order 100 oxygen concentrators but to no avail,” he said via Zoom. “I know many of my friends in the non-profit area in China who are trying their best to help Indian friends to purchase oxygen concentrators.”

There are no more than 10 factories that can produce the 10-litre machine, he said. These are spread across Shenyang and parts of Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces.

Everywhere you turn, you see news that is really distressing coming out of India
Sridhar Srinivasan

“Getting our hands on oxygen concentrators is proving to be very difficult,” said Sridhar Srinivasan, an engineering manager at a tech company in Shanghai, who like Ghosh is also catering to individual requests from India. “They are all sold out and the ones who claim to have stock, we don’t know if they really have stock, or they will just take the money and not deliver.” It costs around 3,000 yuan (US$500) for a 5-litre unit.

A week ago, Srinivasan and his wife started to think about how to get more seriously involved in relief work after renowned Tabla maestro Pandit Sarit Das died of Covid-19 in India. Das used to teach the Indian musical instrument at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

“Pandit Das was among the unfortunate people who were locked out from returning to China last year. His death hit very close to our hearts,” said Srinivasan. “I know so many people who have had losses. Everywhere you turn, you see news that is really distressing coming out of India.”


India’s oxygen crisis: Covid-19 patients rely on express trains and makeshift camps for air supply

India’s oxygen crisis: Covid-19 patients rely on express trains and makeshift camps for air supply


On April 30, the Indian government allowed faster customs clearance on imports of critical care medical equipment including oxygen concentrators, which spurred efforts to send single units from China.

“Through a courier channel, a couple of us are piloting an initiative where we purchase oxygen concentrators via Taobao and courier them to trusted people in India who can lend it out like a library to whoever needs it,” Srinivasan said. “If it succeeds, we can scale it up.” The team sent out 20 units to individual recipients on Thursday. 

There are practical issues with sourcing from the Chinese market though, as instructions might be entirely in Chinese and some of the products are not eligible for export.

We are safe, we are enjoying life here, but they are suffering
Maitreyee Ray

The Indian Association, Shanghai, has also been actively involved in the effort. The 25-year-old association, which runs under the patronage of the Consulate General of India in Shanghai, has actively fundraised for previous disasters and has organised blood donation drives and cultural events featuring Bollywood stars

Members started feeling “tremors” when friends and family back in India began to fall sick. “We raised almost 1.5 million rupees (US$20,000) in four days in the first phase of funding,” said association president Mukesh Sharma. This included donations from Chinese friends and colleagues.

As India’s Covid-19 surge hits embassies, Modi’s image abroad suffers

The team placed an order for 35 units of 10-litre oxygen concentrators and hope to ship these to India by May 15. “The number of oxygen concentrators is increasing if we aggregate all the demands, so we are discussing the possibility of running a chartered Air India flight,” Shama said.

To avoid falling prey to fly-by-night operators taking advantage of the soaring demand for oxygen concentrators, a board member of the association flew out to a factory for a quality check.

Maitreyee Ray with her husband at the Great Wall of China. Photo: Handout

Primary school teacher Maitreyee Ray, who lives in Guangdong with her husband, a manager in a Chinese textile company, has sent one concentrator to India so far. “Some Indians in Guangdong have come together as a group and extended their hand in support,” she said.

“As long as our people in India are not safe, we will definitely help. We are safe, we are enjoying life here, but they are suffering. My daughter is there, my father is there, and I am terrified for their safety.”

Ray and her husband rode out the pandemic in China. She commented on the discipline with which Chinese people used face masks. “Even today everyone wears a mask. Even if you just go downstairs for a walk, everyone wears a mask. Even a child in a pram has a mask on.”