Over the past one week, Tamil Nadu has been exploring possibilities of expanding oxygen production to meet the demand created by the surging COVID-19 cases. However, none of the new projects would be able to supply oxygen for the ongoing wave.
License has been granted to private players like Inox and SicgilSol to set up new units in the state to generate around 140 and 60 tonnes of oxygen per day, respectively. The state is also considering providing approval to Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL) to produce medical oxygen.
It would take six to nine months for Inox’s plant to start production, and the SicgilSol unit could become operational in about nine months. CPCL, if approved, will need three to six months to begin producing oxygen for medical use.
At the peak of infection in September 2020, when there were around 56,000 cases, the state used 260 metric tonnes (MT) of oxygen a day. With more than 1 lakh active cases at present, the oxygen requirement has already crossed 350 MT a day, compared to around 280 MT a day a week ago.
Studies show that with the ongoing wave, the country would reach its peak by mid-May. Epidemiologists in the National Institute of Epidemiology (NIE) in Chennai have projected the fresh daily cases of COVID-19 in Chennai to touch 19,000 by May 15, if the infection rate in the city does not decrease.
Also read: COVID-19: 2nd Wave Overburdens Tamil Nadu Health System, But Govt Still in Denial
Currently, Tamil Nadu has the capacity to produce only 400 MT of medical oxygen per day. The state is estimating that during the peak, they would require 450 MT of medical oxygen every day.
All this reveals that a short supply of oxygen seems inevitable even in Tamil Nadu, which is considered as an oxygen surplus state at present.
LETHARGY OR PLOY?
Only a few days ago, a list of industrial oxygen manufacturers in the state had been collated. It was as late as April 24 that the state told oxygen manufacturers to mull over ways to increase production.
However, the Tamil Nadu Health Department did ramp up its storage capacities over the past year, from 346 to 882 MT. Apparently, increasing production at a short span of time looked difficult, so the other course of action was to increase storage for an emergency situation.
But now, after more than a year since the pandemic hit, the state has realised the need for expanding oxygen production.
Suganya, a PTI journalist closely tracking the COVID-19 scenario in Tamil Nadu, told NewsClick, “As of now, the scarcity is not yet with oxygen, but with oxygen beds. The government is increasing oxygen beds. Stanley Hospital in Chennai, which already had 800 oxygen beds, has added 500 more. But, doubling beds in hospitals overnight is not a possibility”.
"Chennai at present has approximately 31,000 active cases, 50% of them are in home isolation, a large number are in institutional isolation and those in hospitals are proportionally less. Yet, the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital requires 20 kilo litres of oxygen per day. The other government hospitals - Kilpauk, Stanley, Kings and others - require 8 to 10 kilo litres of oxygen per day. Whole of Tamil Nadu was requiring 240 MT of oxygen a few days back. Now that the active cases have crossed 1 lakh, the need has doubled and it has to be addressed,” she said.
She added that, “The government did not anticipate the intensity of the spread of the virus, and that's what is leading to the crisis.”
Also read: TN this Week: Daily COVID-19 Count Breaches 8,000, Stricter Restrictions Anticipated
Meanwhile, doctors, medical experts and health activists say that a spike in cases was expected, and that the governments had sufficient knowledge and time to prepare for the situation.
“With the Spanish flu, more than a hundred years ago, we got to know that the second wave will be stronger than the first. We cannot say this situation was unexpected," said Dr. Joseph Amalorpavanathan, retired professor from the Madras Medical College.
About the sudden commotion over oxygen production, he said, "Even if production is possible, storing, transporting and distributing this large amount is a challenge. The state did not plan this out, it is the state's policy paralysis that has brought us to this situation."
Senthamizh Selvan of Tamil Nadu Science Forum said, "It is not only with the demand for oxygen, the state did not prepare for anything. The difference between the first wave and now is that we have more knowledge about the virus and we know of the necessary infrastructure requirements. But, the state didn't prepare."
He added, "The state should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, which did not happen."
“This unpreparedness is not lethargy from the side of the government,” he said, adding, “It is a consciously created crisis, with an aim to open up the market for private players.”
It is notable that Vedanta has objected in the Supreme Court to allow Tamil Nadu government to run its oxygen plant situated in Thoothukudi. The apex court on April 27 had allowed Vedanta to operate its closed oxygen plant saying the order has been passed in view of "national need" for oxygen and there should be no “political bickering” over the generation of the gas by the company as the country is facing a "national crisis".
As of April 27, the active number of cases in Tamil Nadu is reported as 1,07,145. The fresh cases recorded on April 25 were 15,659.