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Countries Are Sending Aid To India — But It's Been Slow To Reach Patients Who Need It

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

India confirmed more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases today, as it's done for much of the last two weeks. The U.S. and other countries have been sending aid, but some of it has been slow to reach the patients who need it. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sanchi Gupta's mother is on a ventilator in a New Delhi hospital whose oxygen supply is running low.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANCHI GUPTA: My mother is very critical in the ICU. But what is happening with the government? Why don't we have oxygen? Why? Why is this happening?

FRAYER: Gupta spoke to local media as she searched for an oxygen cylinder to deliver to her mother.

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GUPTA: We're trying to find empty cylinders because we can still get those filled. We are in contact with NGOs, with everybody. We're using every kind of pressure, every kind of contact. We are desperate.

FRAYER: This is not the job of patients' families, but India's supply chains have broken down. On Saturday, 12 COVID patients died after an oxygen delivery to their hospital was delayed by just an hour and a half. And it's not just COVID patients. A children's hospital put out an SOS, saying some of its babies in critical care might die if it can't procure oxygen quickly. This is happening more than a week after the world started sending India oxygen support.

S D MISHRA: Stocks are there, but transport is one of the issues.

FRAYER: S.D. Mishra works for the government agency that regulates transport of oxygen and hazardous substances. He says supply is not an issue. The Indian government has temporarily banned oxygen for industrial use and is diverting it all to hospitals. The problem is with transport, he says. Lots of tanker drivers also got sick right at the moment when oxygen demand skyrocketed.

MISHRA: So fast - it was very difficult to manage all the things. And people at home also - they brought cylinders, and they started using it. So because of this panic situation now...

FRAYER: Because of this panic situation, demand for medical oxygen in parts of Delhi is up by as much as 700%. Most of India's oxygen plants are in the south of the country, and demand right now is mostly in the north. The air force is airlifting empty tankers back to the factories to cut travel time. Dr. Sumit Ray has experienced shortages firsthand.

SUMIT RAY: There are patients dying who come in the ambulances, searching from hospital to hospital, and they are brought dead because they did not find oxygen, or the oxygen in the ambulance ran out.

FRAYER: His hospital came within 30 minutes of running out of oxygen 10 days ago. He scrambled to try to hook up patients two to a cylinder and triage who could be saved. He put in frantic calls to government officials.

RAY: It's not that they were not trying to help, but they themselves didn't know how to go about it - the logistics of large-enough tankers moving fast enough. And also coordinating because the demand has gone up, so you have to coordinate much more about who gets how much.

FRAYER: Disaster was at least averted at Dr. Ray's hospital. Oxygen is now arriving daily. But the close call he had - it says something about India's pandemic preparedness a year into this pandemic. India spends only about 1% of its GDP on health. That's much less than any of its peers, says Yamini Aiyar, president of the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi think tank.

YAMINI AIYAR: India's public health is a consequence of decades of neglect. The bulk of expenditure is out-of-pocket. The vast majority of India basically manages their health on their own.

FRAYER: And so these scenes of families buying oxygen cylinders on the black market and trying to haul them into hospitals to save their loved ones - they're sadly typical here in an underfunded system that's suddenly hit by the worst pandemic wave in the world.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.