Panic over oxygen subsides in Valley but hoarding of cylinders adds to problemAs Covid-19 cases in the Valley show a slight dip, long lines are not seen at oxygen plants. But people keeping cylinders at home after use could cost others their lives.
Hamro Team Nepal, a non-governmental organisation that has been providing free oxygen for underprivileged Covid-19 patients, gets hundreds of phone calls every day.
“We receive hundreds of calls every day from people who are in need of oxygen cylinders,” said Nilam Kumar Bogati, vice chairman of Hamro Team Nepal. “Many people who are in home isolation also contact us pleading for oxygen saying they didn’t get a hospital bed but need oxygen urgently.”
But the people who took cylinders from the group are not returning them even after patients have recovered from Covid-19.
“Many people after using the cylinders want to keep them saying they might need them in future,” said Bogati. “This has affected our service to make oxygen cylinders available to those in need of them.”
After the number of cases soared in India in early April and reading reports of scarcity of oxygen cylinders there, the group had collected 50 containers from various sources like oxygen plants and industries before the lockdown.
As the number of cases soared in Nepal, the group helped individuals and hospitals by providing full cylinders, according to the group’s president Bimal Panta.
“For the underprivileged who need oxygen, we provide cylinders for free and after it finishes, we bring it back to refill them,” said Panta.
While the shortage of oxygen in Kathmandu has eased somewhat compared to two weeks or so ago when there were people queuing at oxygen plants for the sake of their loved ones at home and in hospitals, the demand for oxygen is still high, according to manufacturers.
Nepal on Friday recorded 8,407 new infections, with 2,447 in Kathmandu Valley. This figure for the Valley is well below the 4,198 on May 9 when 8,777 new cases were recorded in the country.
The nationwide infection tally now is 497,052, of which 116,192 cases are active.
On Friday the Ministry of Health and Population reported 177 more deaths, taking the total toll to 6,024.
The gradual decline in the number of cases in the Valley is reflected in the number of people crowding at oxygen plants.
“There is no panic buying of oxygen now but demand continues to be high,” said Gaurav Sarda, director of Kantipur Oxygen.
With hospitals under strain, thousands of infected people are in home isolation.
According to manufacturers and the Health Ministry, people need a doctor’s prescription to get oxygen from manufacturers who provide them after taking a deposit for cylinders.
“But we don’t give out large cylinders of 60 litres capacity to individuals,” Sarda, who is also the president of Oxygen Manufacturers Association, told the Post. “We have only given out small 10 litre-cylinders to individuals after taking a deposit but even those are not being returned.”
If there is a shortage of oxygen cylinders there must be a leakage somewhere, according to him.
Shanker Lal Agrawal of Shanker Oxygen Gas said that he does not give oxygen cylinders to individuals as far as possible because they may be hoarding cylinders.
“But in case hospitals ask for them, we provide them after taking a deposit,” Agrawal told the Post. “Otherwise we just give smaller cylinders to individuals against cash deposits.”
When Hamro Team Nepal contacts a patient's family to get back oxygen cylinders, many make excuses saying they gave the cylinders to their relatives as they were in need of oxygen too.
“While some people do not return cylinders thinking they might need them in future, others do if we convince them saying that they can call us anytime in future,” Bogati told the Post.
The lack of empathy and hoarding of oxygen cylinders have roused ire on social media.
“Someone at Teaching needed an oxygen cylinder last week.
@Ravimemoirs came to the rescue. The covid patient was discharged from hospital & is recovering well. Ravi Singh, flooded with oxygen requests, sent her a text message requesting the cylinder back, yesterday. No response. He called her today. They didn’t take the call. Apparently, she hasn’t used the oxygen BUT the family - an upper middle class working for INGOs in Kathmandu - refuses to return the cylinder saying they might need it. Look at humanity.” wrote a Twitter user.
“People may be hoarding cylinders as until some days ago it was difficult to get oxygen due to the government decision,” said Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of the Clinical Research Unit at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Teku.
He was referring to an earlier government decision as per which the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre was allocating cylinders to hospitals and hospitals were turning away patients since the allocation was not enough.
“Therefore, people might be saving it thinking they may need it in future,” Pun told the Post.
The demand for cylinders has also meant that some people are selling them for a premium. On Tuesday Lalitpur Metropolitan Police Range arrested three people on the charge of selling oxygen cylinders in the black market.
According to Senior Superintendent Kiran Bajracharya, chief of the Lalitpur Metropolitan Police Range, they were found charging up to Rs41,000 for an oxygen cylinder which costs between Rs15,000 and Rs20,000.
Nepal Police has also collected over 9,000 oxygen cylinders so far in different parts of the country and distributed them to hospitals.
“Oxygen cylinders kept at homes or in stock at different factories, gas welding workshops, stores, godowns and other sites for purposes other than health are being collected,” said Senior Superintendent Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, spokesperson for the Nepal Police.
But no matter how many cylinders are available, there may be shortages if people hoard them.
According to Pun, only critical patients need oxygen and if they don't get it on time, it could cost their lives too.
"Hoarding cylinders can create artificial shortages, which could cost many people’s lives," Pun told the Post. "The demand for oxygen and cylinders is high even now and if people started hoarding cylinders, it could prove fatal."