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A country in crisis: India faces major oxygen shortage as country battles second wave of COVID-19

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Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan spoke with Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, an epidemiologist from Princeton University and the director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, who recently launched the initiative Oxygen for India. Their candid conversation covered the current oxygen crisis in India and what Verizon Media, the U.S. and the world can do to help fight the nation’s devastating second wave of COVID-19.

Video Transcript

GURU GOWRAPPAN: A second wave of COVID-19 is tearing through India. And the health care system there is being pushed to the limit, as hospitals run out of beds, treatment, and lifesaving oxygen.


Joining me now to address the crisis is Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, an epidemiologist from Princeton University and the director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, which launched the Oxygen for India initiative. Thank you for joining again, Dr. Ramanan.

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: Thanks for having me, Guru. We really appreciate Yahoo's support here.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: How would you describe the current situation with the COVID second wave in India?

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: It's worse than I could have ever imagined because, to an epidemiologist, this is really what one would expect with a completely new respiratory virus rolled through a population as vulnerable as in India, people in close proximity to each other, very easy scope for transmission, and a health care system that, even in the best of times, doesn't work for people and, in an totally crisis time like this, has collapsed.

Yesterday, I know of about 15 or 18 people who died. It doesn't matter how connected you are, how influential, how wealthy you are. You cannot get drugs. And most importantly for most people, you can't get oxygen. So people are literally choking to death.

And it's tragic because it didn't have to be this way. But that's where we are right now.

I had a close colleague, 42 years old, perfect health, has a five-year-old daughter. And he had severe COVID. We could not, for the life of us, find him oxygen. And I thought, with all the connections we have, if we can't find this guy a cylinder of oxygen, what's happening to everyone else?

Basically, his hospital turned off the oxygen at night because they didn't have the supply of oxygen. So getting a hospital bed is no guarantee of actually getting oxygen. And a lot of deaths are happening in that way.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: You did start OFI, the Oxygen for India. Just explain a bit more what you're trying to do with that.

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: OxygenforIndia.org, it was a group of volunteers that's now grown to over 120 volunteers in seven cities across India, working to get oxygen to people. The oxygen problem, I think, we can solve at least for some set of people because it's a matter of getting the cylinders filled where they are.

So we're vetting people for clinical need. Not everyone who's asking for oxygen really needs the oxygen. Some people are saying, well, I just want to keep one at home just in case. That's not our priority.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: India recorded over 300,000 new cases of coronavirus in just one day. Those are, of course, record high numbers.

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: So 300,000 recorded cases per day. And remember, no country gets to pick up all infections just because the testing is not widespread. Is a huge underestimate of the true number of infections, it's because positivity rates are 30%. So at that level of positivity, we need to be doing about 10 times the number of tests.

Even in the best of times, India has a very low ratio of hospital beds to people. There's only one doctor for every 1,600 patients. And that's mostly in urban areas. In rural areas, that ratio can be one per 10,000 patients. And just for comparison in the US, that ratio is one per 500. So if the US system was overrun, you can just imagine what's happening in the Indian system.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: The Indian government, of course, has declared the pandemic as an end game and something you criticized. What factors do you think caused the soaring case rates and the death toll the country now is facing?

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: I think the scale of the second wave was amplified by complacency. And that complacency was driven by poor messaging. When you message to people that-- well, on the one hand, I'm telling you to wear a mask. But on the other hand, I'm encouraging gatherings which are large anyway. Then you don't really have people protecting themselves.

And because of that, a lot of people just dropped their guard. Everybody naturally wants to see the end of COVID. But the virus determines when it's over. We don't determine when it's over. And I think this mistake has been made in many countries around the world.

It's been made in Brazil and Mexico. It's been made in the US as well. But the consequences are much more devastating in a country like India, where the resources are much weaker.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: What should people be taking away?

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: I think the main message to people would be, please, please, don't use resources that you don't need right now. Please do not hoard remdesivir. Please do not hoard toculizumab. Please do not hoard oxygen concentrators and cylinders just in case you should need it because what you're doing when you do that is preventing someone who needs it today from getting one.

I think the other thing is for people to get vaccinated. But that's really the only protection at this point. And that's my message to people in the US as well. Please get vaccinated.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: What's your outlook for the pandemic now when you think about the next three or four months?

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: The projected peak comes in about three to four weeks. But a peak is only a tip. It's going to be above system capacity probably for at least two months, maybe three months. So we have a really tough period ahead. I can only pray that we make it through with our humanity intact.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: How can we support your work?

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: I think we can make a dent on the problem. But the need is enormous. It's really enormous. So as much as people can help and contribute, it will help because it means that we can reach more places.

You can support by giving at OxygenforIndia.org. Give through CDEP. Of course, if you happen to be watching this in India, give through Tech4Health Foundation. All the details are on the OxygenforIndia.org website.

GURU GOWRAPPAN: Please let us know if there is anything else we can do to help. I know we will keep at least making sure people see the information and support it in the best way possible.

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: Thanks, Guru. I really appreciate that. I still have team members who've not slept at all last night. So people are working constantly at this. And we're doing our best. But thank you so much for helping us.