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Home > 2021 > Foretaste of Oxygen deficiency: A Personal Account | AK Biswas

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Foretaste of Oxygen deficiency: A Personal Account | AK Biswas

Friday 14 May 2021, by A K Biswas


A harrowing tale of a wife to save her husband

Many newspapers on April 26, 2021 carried a heart-wrenching story under the screaming headline ‘Oxygen nightmare: Desperate wife fails to blow life into dying husband.’ Despite such last ditch attempts to resuscitate her dying husband by breathing into his mouth, he succumbed to the coronavirus on his wife’s lap. Thus, a solo battle of Renu Singhal of Agra, Uttar Pradesh to save Ravi Singhal ended. The story, no doubt, bears the stamp of national symbol in the ever-enveloping scenario characterized by lack of preparedness to meet the challenges. It highlighted many dimensions of the ongoing crisis, invading lives of tens of millions of Indians arising out of shortage of oxygen and lack of preparation to fight the second wave of pandemic. Dishonest traders, hoarders, musclemen, black-marketeers, profiteers and manipulators with blessings for invisible protective hands like shields against action for indulging in anti-national activities are always out to make a hay while the sun shines.

The Government of India has in the end launched a campaign across the globe to import medical grade oxygen to meet the crisis threatening to endanger life of 1.3 billion Indians by pressing the Indian Air Force to rise to the occasion. Global tender has been issued by the Government to procure 50,000 tonnes of oxygen to meet the crisis. The first consignments might arrive, as per the report, from Singapore, China and the Gulf countries. [1] In the meanwhile reports have been pouring to suggest that villages are being engulfed rapidly. Nobody is perhaps sure whether the situation will be salvaged or not.

A perspective of oxygen crisis in Kolkata

On 23rd April 2021 while taking evening tea, I had a feeling of distress in normal breathing which I disclosed to my wife. Quite aware of the emerging situation, she immediately turned herself in a mode to fight an emergency: called a driver, besides summoning her sister’s son, a young IT professional as a preparatory to meeting a challenge of imminent health hazard. I had difficulty in walking, with even support, up to the lift next to my door to take me down to my car. Within the next 30 minutes or so, I was taken to a hospital on the V.I.P. Road in the neighbourhood within a km from our residence. By then, I was gasping uncontrollably due to severe oxygen deficiency with no experience of this dimension. The hospital, where both of us have consulted physicians on several occasions over the past 6-7 years, refused to entertain me, repeated pleas for admission for immediate medical attention notwithstanding.

I was taken to another hospital called Spandan, also on VIP Road, not far off from the unrelenting previous one. A nurse, on duty to administer oxygen, told me very calmly that she could give me oxygen for TEN MINUTES only. The announcement at the hour was like a death warrant. A check on the oximeter at home before we had left, showed my saturation level about or below 80. (My own feeling is that perhaps my wife had withheld from me information, as a precaution, regarding exact saturation status lest I lose hope for survival). My gasping was unbearable. It was terrible experience I have never ever had before.

The lady administering lifesaving oxygen at Spandan, surprisingly, did not remove the mask from my mouth after ten minutes. I continued to inhale oxygen for the next two hours and benefit. I realized why nurses across the globe are referred to as “The Lady with the lamp” signifying light and hope for life till the last breath. I felt grateful to her for the quiet magnanimity extended to me. With a lamp in her hand in the dark nights, Florence Nightingale (12 May 1820-13 August 1910), the legendary nurse would make rounds in army barracks to give her loving care and attention to soldiers wounded in the Cremean war.

At 12.30 past midnight, i. e., April 24, 2021, I was shifted to Aryan Hospital, another facility not far off from Spandan in an ICU Ambulance. Advance payment of a sum of Rs. 5,000 [Five Thousand] was insisted on and actually secured before I was transported a distance of mere two kms. My journey by air about two months ago from Delhi had cost me little more than 50% of the amount ICU Ambulance extorted from me. The operators knew it was his time: I could not afford to bargain.

The Aryan Hospital, though a new facility, does/did not pretend or boast of a well-equipped one; but I should be fair and unhesitant to admit that it had adequate oxygen to meet my needs or needs of many in an emergency. All night I got support of the most critical oxygen uninterruptedly and overcame or survived the crisis. By 5 pm the same day, the Hospital discharged me in a stable condition.

Official support but others….

I had known D. S., a young IPS officer of West Bengal cadre serving in the area where we have been residing since I got back to Kolkata after retirement from Bihar. I came in touch with him after the outbreak of Covidvirus-19; and he was of help as and when we needed. He had suitably advised the Inspector in-charge, S. K., local police station to be of help to us in case of any emergency. I can see the invisible hands D. S. and S. K. in receiving extended attention at Spandan and subsequent welcome in Aryan Hospitals on the night of nightmares.

Discharged from Aryan Hospital, I reached home in the evening. On the following day, (25th April) we launched a drive to find out how to meet a crisis, if any, or ever, were/are we struck with the same oxygen deficiency or something equally fearful. My wife sought a cardiologist’s help in Rabindra Nath Tagore Hospital where we have been consulting him at least half a decade, if not more. Though sensitive, he replied that it “is difficult to get bed.” Simultaneously, I approached my friend D. S. who, on hearing me, came back after some time and shared with me the WhatsApp number of a doctor working in Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals, Kolkata in a position of influence for extending help. He wanted us to contact him. My repeated phone calls went unattended and WhatsApp message without response from the physician. This unnerved us. We were convinced it might be perilous to believe help would come by when we would be in need in the given situation.

I reached out to my oncologist who had treated me in 2006-2007 and cured my Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL), B cell type in the same Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals, Kolkata with the same request. [2] He was candid to inform me post-haste that the hospitals “are running full” adding as well “they have requested us not to put forward any recommendations.” Fact remains that I had undergone surgery in the Apollo Hospital for implanting AICD (Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator). In desperation, we started looking for a facility outside Calcutta. I spent my entire service career in Bihar. Kolkata is almost like a strange city to our absence for over three decades.

By the way, as a cardholder of CGHS (Central Government Health Scheme), private hospitals tend to give low priority in availing or extending admissible benefits of health services, often, if not always, as a mercy to them. I say this based on my personal experience in Calcutta. In 2016, the AICD which was implanted following my heart failure, noted above, cost me almost a fortune. When I claimed reimbursement of the cost I had incurred, the Government of India was pleased to sanction little over 50% of the expenses. Here lies, perhaps, the inherent and strong disincentive for corporate hospitals against entertaining CGHS cardholders for treatment as per entitlements under the national government health scheme a real predicament at least in Kolkata.

Off to Raniganj

Our sons are away from Calcutta in their respective workplaces far away. In the given circumstances, we felt helpless and clueless. The global outbreak of coronavirus has made their presence by our side in critical hours impossible. We expect system in place to work and be of help to anybody in need. If that doesn’t, serious worries are bound to invade us with mounting tension inflicting predictable repercussions on our health and psyche.

Dr. Rohan Bhandari, a relative, has been working in a corporate hospital at Raniganj, known coal and industrial hub in Burdwan District some 180 kms away from Calcutta. My wife got in touch with him for advice in the situation obtaining at our end. With the promise of necessary support spontaneously, he wanted us to reach straight to Raniganj at the earliest. In the next two hour, we left Calcutta at 7 o’clock in the evening for Raniganj and made it to our destination by 11 pm.

Next morning, I was admitted to The Mission Hospital, a multi-discipline facility founded by a group of experienced doctors. Dr. Bhandari played a very critical role in organizing everything required for me. Four days of medical care following hospitalization, my health was restored back to normalcy. On 2 May, we returned to Calcutta. The pandemic has driven the country to a tottering verge and the ravages of Coronavirus show no signs of abetment. The ferocity of the epidemic disease has been turning more and more virulent. The number of cases and its victims, which have been rising everyday alarmingly, bears no comparison even remotely with previous year. Indians, caught napping, are in a very dangerous as also inescapable situation. Their anxiety arises out of extreme uncertainty whether they would get access to a hospital for proper attention even in an emergency and if oxygen required, would that be available in the nick of the moment? Or is everyone, with deficiency of oxygen, fated to die like Ravi Singhal of Agra, notwithstanding his wife’s valiant efforts to revive him?

The only comparable case that I can imagine is the plague havoc Indian subcontinent suffered, beginning with 1896, over a century ago. Till 1920, the black death carried off ten million lives. This is a conservative estimate. We must not fail to underline that the actual victims of plague were five times more than the figures reported officially. Commenting on the nature and consequences of the onslaught of current corona pandemic which has been ravaging India in its second wave, an epidemiologist at Michigan University, Bhramar Mukherjee is of opinion [3] that “the true number of deaths” in India, “is two to five times what is being reported.” In case of plague, the families of relatives of the victims suppressed facts and hence the authorities had regretted their inability to report the actual status of deaths.

An impression has gained ground far and wide that perspective, individual or institutional, if discordant with that of the official line, is strongly detested or denounced in India. The unfolding tragedy of the nation regarding deplorable loss of precise numbers of human lives is not being reflected in black and white. The Washington Post highlighted [4] the crisis staring in India’s face with a caption ---“Modi’s pandemic choice: Protect his image or protect India. He chose himself.”

History suggests that India boasted of an embarrassing record of fudging “the true number of deaths” which were hedged under deceptive tapestry of patriotism and nationalism. The credulous countrymen bought their story calculated to camouflage dishonest design over a century ago. We can recall, in brief, the catastrophe plague wrought in India between 1896-1930, do we?

Millions of dead bodies furnished the foundation or theatre for socio-political and cultural image of a class of people though, strangely, none ever questioned, much less accused them for the subcontinent’s colossal tragedy. A dauntless ICS officer, Walter Charles Rand, as Plague Commissioner, Poona, plunged himself for fighting the black death. A shrill bogey of outraging the modesty of maiden women, purity of Brahmani’s home, venerated as temple, by entry of British police, was raised against anti-plague measures. Official report, however, stated that “Poona had become a very dangerous plague centre” by 1987.

Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak blessed the plague as “merciful” than anti-plague measures Plague Commissioner had launched officially! The plague as mercy? Let us probe the claim. The black death carried off a total 100,00,000 lives of the subcontinent between 1896 and 1920, as documented by the Statesman’s Year Book 1920. The Hindu Plague Hospital for which venerated Tilak played a prominent role in setting up on encouragement by the Government had banned admission for treatment of low castes. His hatred against low caste in every aspect of human treatment was legendary. Lives of low castes did not matter to his section of the society.

What a providential mercy! Indians never questioned, much less probed, the unprecedented horror of the plague. Four million people died of starvation during the Bengal famine in 1941. Volume after volume is still being dished out by researchers, many from foreign universities. One can rarely see a volume on the ravages of plague by Indian scholars. Those who are credited with works on this field, have ended up eulogising the patriots and freedom fighters who in full throat voice denounced anti-plague measures. Death of more than one crore Indians did not appeal to them over their blinding superstition and orthodoxy bred by peculiar customs and practices, a fact too difficult to believe with equanimity. They even did not accuse the colonial administration for colossal loss of lives.

The assassination of Charles Rand and his companion Lieutenant Ayerst by three brothers---Damodar Hari Chaupekar, Bal Krishna Hari Chaupekar and Vasudeo Hari Chaupekar at Poona within three months’ of taking charges by him as Plague Commissioner must have sapped and/or derailed the anti-plague campaign across India. Damodar’s dastardly act had earned Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s blessings. Nobody found it shocking, nor any denounced the murderers. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, whose letter was published in The Times of India, offered public apology for his tirade while in England against plague measures, based on concocted stories and fictitious gossips of atrocities in Poona fed by his friends and correspondents. [5] An inescapable question goes abegging is/was the nation ever in safe hand to guide her destiny? A candid question nobody asked: Why did they fail to show respect to the death of ten million countrymen? Their aim is to safeguard the angelic image of some people who were placed even above the nation. The Punjab alone lost a whopping 11.8% population (based on the census of 1911) to plague in one decade. No province suffered as much a strength to match the devastated Punjab. Our leaders had no qualms of conscience yet even to ponder over their senseless pride and prejudice.

History was subverted, distorted and perverted so that image of the murderers of Plague Commissioner and their accomplices remained above blot. After a century, Damodar Hari Chaupekar was honoured as “martyr” in 2018 by issuing postage stamps. [6] A nation that distorts history to suit the image or convenience of a few, Nature teaches them lessons.


On return from Raniganj, both of us underwent RT PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests. The results of the tests are different: only my result is negative.

(The writer is a former Vice-Chancellor, B. R. Ambedkar Bihar University and a retired IAS officer.)

[1The Hindustan Standard Special on Coronavirus, April 23, 2021

[2A Cancer Survivor speaks in First Person by A K Biswas (Mainstream, 13 February 2016)

[3’Complete massacre of data’: Experts flag undercounting of India’s COVID-19 deaths in second wave

[4Modi’s pandemic choice: Protect his image or protect India. He chose himself by Sumit Ganguly (The Washington Post, April 28, 2021)

[5Coronavirus from Wuhan in 2019 Reminds catastrophe plague from Manchuria in 1896 wrought in India

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