When 54-year-old Niranjan Saha started complaining of breathlessness at home last week in New Delhi, his wife, Usha Devi, immediately suspected the coronavirus. With India’s outbreak worsening and hospitals turning away patients, she rushed into their sons’ room.
“Do whatever you want but find me an oxygen cylinder,” Mrs. Devi told Anikat, 21, and Mukul, 19. “Sell my gold, but get a cylinder.”
In India, amid probably the world’s gravest current outbreak, families beg for aid, and flames from funeral pyres burn day and night. Oxygen has become one of the scarcest commodities. On Wednesday, the Indian Health Ministry reported 3,293 deaths from the virus, taking the country’s toll to more than 200,000 since the pandemic began, and 357,000 new infections, breaking the global one-day record it set just days ago.
The Indian government says that it has enough liquid oxygen to meet medical needs and that it is rapidly expanding its supply. But production facilities are concentrated in eastern India, far from the worst outbreaks in Delhi and in the western state of Maharashtra, requiring several days’ travel time by road.
Families of the sick are filling social media with pleas for oxygen as supplies run low at hospitals or because they are trying to administer care at home. Others are turning to relatives, friends, co-workers, local politicians — anyone who might have a lead on a cylinder.
A few days after Mr. Saha, a salesman, first complained of symptoms, he tested positive for the coronavirus. Watching images of Indian patients gasping for breath in ambulances, he told his wife that he would prefer to “die at home” rather than begging strangers for help.
Their sons began looking anyway.
They set off across Delhi on a motorbike, stopping at hospital after hospital to ask if any had a bed and oxygen supply. They called friends and sent mass texts on WhatsApp. They approached a politician from the Aam Aadmi Party, which runs the Delhi government. No one could help.
Mr. Saha’s condition worsened and his fever soared. Lying in bed, he pleaded with Mrs. Devi to find a doctor.
“I don’t want to die,” he said, grasping her hand.
On Sunday evening, four days after he had tested positive, his sons stopped outside an oxygen refill shop in southern Delhi. A man stepped forward and offered to help. Relieved, Anikat and Mukul prepared to hand over the money their mother had given them: 10,000 rupees, about $135, the standard rate for a cylinder.
“Sixty thousand,” the man said.
The young men were stunned. That was nearly as much as their father earned in a year.
“But do you have a choice?” Anikat Saha said. “What do you do when your patient is dying?”
Some in Delhi say they have paid at least 10 times the usual price for oxygen, and the news media have carried reports of cylinders being looted from hospitals. A Delhi court on Tuesday said that the local government had failed to curb a mushrooming black market and described those hoarding supplies as “vultures.”
“When hundreds of people die over something as basic as medical oxygen, it is a massive governance failure,” said Asim Ali, a research scholar at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.
The brothers spoke to their mother, who made desperate calls to neighbors and relatives in Assam, their father’s home state. In the end, they did not have to pawn her gold jewelry: They scraped together the money and carried the cylinder away on their motorbike.
At home, they couldn’t immediately figure out how to connect their father to the oxygen supply. By the time they got it to work, the oximeter on his finger showed his blood oxygen level dropping below 50 — dangerously low. For several hours, he drew shallow breaths through the tube.
But then his eyes closed and his body lay still.
They called an ambulance and Mrs. Devi rode with her husband to a hospital where they were told they might find a bed. They arrived to find a line of ambulances waiting outside with patients. Mr. Saha died before he could be admitted.