An acute shortage of oxygen cylinders and their erratic supply to the hospitals and medical colleges have led to the deaths of 16 people in Rupandehi district on Tuesday and Wednesday. Rupandehi has now become the hotspot of COVID-19 infection after the Kathmandu Valley. A total of 771 people are undergoing treatment at various hospitals there, which are facing an acute shortage of oxygen. Health officials said seven people died of the coronavirus at Bhim Hospital in Bhairahawa, five at Butwal's COVID-19 Special Hospital and four at Bhairahawa's Universal Medical College. All of the deceased are aged between 32 to 70. Scenes at these hospitals were heart-rending as family members of the COVID-19 patients were seen crying for help from the local administration as the patients were convulsing on the hospital beds for lack of oxygen. Doctors in these hospitals said they were quite helpless as they could not provide oxygen to those who needed most. Doctors said they could have saved many of them if they had enough stock of oxygen cylinders. Many of them passed away about 15 minutes after oxygen ran out.
The government's response to the pandemic is largely guided by ad hocism, rather than well-thought-out planning in advance
Many more people could also die of the respiratory contagion in the days to come if the government fails to make arrangement for oxygen cylinders without any further delay.
After the local administration and provincial government faced much criticism from all walks of life for failing to provide oxygen in Rupandehi's hospitals, the government asked the Nepali Army to airlift some oxygen cylinders from Simara and Bharatpur Wednesday evening. Another lot of oxygen cylinders is also being airlifted from Biratnagar.
In his tweet account, Lumbini Province Chief Minister Shankar Pokharel said efforts were being made to procure liquid oxygen from India, which will arrive at Bhairahawa by Thursday. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) has told all the community and private hospitals with 100 beds to install their own oxygen plants within 15 days. If they comply with the government order, the shortage of oxygen in many hospitals will be over within a few weeks. However many private hospitals, including in the Valley, have turned away COVID patients citing lack of oxygen.
Vaccination apart, we can save many critically-ill patients if we manage to supply oxygen to all the hospitals across the country. In this case, the government, as a whole, and the Ministry of Health and Population, in particular, should be blamed for this total mess as they did not have any pre-plan to supply enough oxygen cylinders when the second wave of the pandemic started raging the country following the super-spread of the virus in neighbouring India.
If the government can tell all the hospitals to install oxygen plants right now, why did it not issue the same fiat one month ago? The government's response to the pandemic is largely guided by ad hocism, rather than planning in advance. We all knew that the second wave of the respiratory contagion was going to be more lethal than the previous one, but our response to the looming crisis was too slow and too little, that also went ahead without any wellthought-out plans.
Nurses at work
Unlike the doctor, a nurse's contribution in the treatment of patients is rarely visible. Yet, during the coronavirus pandemic that has been raging across the country, the nurses, like the doctors and other health care workers, are at the forefront battling the respiratory contagion by putting their lives at great risk. Clad in PPEs and working long shifts, one can only imagine their plight especially when they have to work in hot, humid conditions as in the Tarai. They cannot even drink water, much less eat. Yet no one is complaining, and the nurses are giving all their time with full dedication to the treatment of patients.
It is thus only right that we acknowledge their immense contribution in treating patients and saving lives not only during this critical health situation but during normal times as well. Given the hazards they face in the line of duty, nurses as well as other frontline health personnel should be given handsome risk allowances as an incentive, besides providing them health insurance. Although no amount of allowance will compensate for the risk they are taking, it should be seen as a token of the government and the people's appreciation of their work and dedication.
A version of this article appears in the print on May 14, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.