Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A medical worker tends to a patient at Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

India’s coronavirus patients face desperate journeys to find oxygen supplies and hospital beds

  • New Delhi’s health care system has been overwhelmed during India’s second wave, leading to a ‘reverse migration’ as patients flee the capital seeking treatment
  • The increased strain on these smaller towns is beginning to show, with oxygen supplies already depleted, and patients may soon be turned away

When Neelam Mehta took her 82-year-old mother to the doctor in New Delhi last week, her coronavirus symptoms were mild but her oxygen saturation had dropped below healthy levels.

The doctor advised Neelam, 52, to find an oxygen cylinder and admit her mother to hospital immediately. That would mean travelling, though, as there were no available beds in the Indian capital.

“You will waste valuable time trying to find a bed here,” the doctor said. “A better option is to put her in the car and try your luck in Jaipur where the situation might not be so bad.”

Jaipur is 300km and six hours’ drive from New Delhi. Neelam could not face the prospect of putting her frail mother through such a journey.

“In the end, we begged a family friend who had contacts to get her admitted,” Neelam said. “With oxygen, she stabilised and came home on Friday.”

India has been devastated by its second wave of coronavirus. In early February, India reported about 10,000 new cases daily but that has since skyrocketed to more than 400,000 per day, although the health ministry on Monday reported a slight easing with 366,161 new cases.
Similarly, India in early February reported about 100 deaths daily but the second wave drove daily casualties above 4,000 for the first time on May 8, before dipping to 3,754 on Monday.

In total. India has reported 22.66 million infections and almost 250,000 deaths.

New Delhi, in particular, has been overwhelmed, recording between 20,000 and 30,000 new cases each day. Although that number dropped to 13,336 on Sunday, hospital beds and oxygen remain scarce.

Doctors have been directing patients to the small towns bordering the capital in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan. Their families have been driving with them to Ambala, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Jaipur and Alwar in search of treatment.

Indians in New Delhi wait to refill oxygen cylinders for Covid-19 patients. Photo: AP

“I’ve had desperate families turning up with very sick patients,” said Dr Rajan Sharma, president of the Indian Medical Association. “My hospital is in Haryana, close to the capital, and so they drive out in a panic hoping against hope to find a bed and oxygen.”

Imtiaz Khan, 60, was earlier this month forced to make such a decision. He set out at midnight from his home in New Delhi with his diabetic sister, who was suffering low oxygen levels, before arriving at Santokh Hospital in Chandigarh six hours later. The hospital had a bed with oxygen and Khan’s sister was admitted.


“We slept in the car in the hospital car park for four nights,” Khan said. “We had no relatives in the city and couldn’t afford a hotel, even if they had given us a room.”

Other families travel to towns where they have relatives, providing accommodation, food and support.


“It’s a reverse migration,” Sharma said. “Before, everyone in small towns came to New Delhi for the best treatment. Now they are running for help to small towns.”

The increased strain on these smaller towns is already beginning to show, with oxygen supplies running low. In towns in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, relatives of patients have smashed furniture and windows in anger after being told there was not enough oxygen.

How Chinese and Indian expats are sending life-saving Covid-19 equipment

India’s second wave has taken a particularly high toll on villages and rural areas. In September and October last year, the caseload was mostly confined to major cities. During the second wave, official data shows cases and casualties in the countryside have quadrupled.


In these areas, there are few medical facilities or testing centres and residents may be reluctant to seek treatment until it’s too late.

“Villagers are in denial. They have a fever and they decide it’s not Covid-19,” said Dr Raghvendra Rai, who works at Sparsh hospital in Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. “They take a paracetamol, the fever goes and they tell themselves they are healthy. It’s somehow comforting for them to tell themselves it’s not Covid-19.


“If only they came in earlier, I could save them. But then I ask myself, if more did come in earlier, would I have a bed for them or would I have to turn them away?”

Coronavirus variant is accelerating India’s outbreak, WHO’s chief scientist says

Foreign epidemiologists last year predicted India would endure an “invisible” catastrophe with millions dying unrecorded deaths.

Rai’s hospital is already full with Covid-19 patients, many from the countryside. If the disease continues to spread in rural India, the epidemiologists’ grim prediction may indeed come to pass.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Heartbreak journeys as virus victims fight for life