On Thursday evening last week, a Sikh prayer house (called gurudwara) in the New Delhi suburb of Indirapuram announced that it would provide free oxygen to Covid-19 patients until they could be admitted to a hospital.
As news spread, people came in their cars, on foot or rickshaws, desperate for the life-giving gas that the whole of India is desperately short of. By Friday, the pavements and streets around the gurudwara were overflowing with gasping patients, supported by frantic family and friends.
Sikh gurudwara worldwide are well-known for their community kitchens called ‘langar’ which feed wholesome food to anybody who comes there. These langars become especially important at times of calamity.
As India grappled with the clawing horror of a deadly second-wave surge of Covid-19, this gurudwara put volunteers to work, checking oxygen levels of newly arrived patients and hooking them up to oxygen supply.
Most hospitals in India aren't equipped with independent plants that generate oxygen directly for patients, primarily because they require an uninterrupted power supply, which is a rarity in many states. At the gurudwara, volunteers and donors are keeping the supply going with cylinders purchased or sourced from all over the city and brought there.
PREMATURE DECLARATION OF VICTORY
For the past couple of weeks, shocking videos and photos of scenes of utter chaos in India’s hospitals, morgues and cemeteries have captured global attention. Many countries had been led to believe that India had acted decisively and swiftly to beat back the virus. In January 2021, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi even addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos virtually, announcing rather prematurely, that India had circumvented the worst of the pandemic by developing a Covid-specific health infrastructure and trained its resources to fight the virus. For some time, Modi’s words even seemed true.
Almost exactly a year ago, in mid-April 2020, India announced and delivered bulk supply of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and paracetamol to United Arab Emirates and Jordan, as essential Covid-19 drugs. With his penchant for the clever phrase, Modi called India the “pharmacy to the world”, even sending a corps of 88 doctors and nurses to UAE in May 2020 to support its fight against the virus, a 15-member army medical team with supplies to Kuwait and supplies of HCQ to Bahrain.
India was also in the news for its large-scale donation of vaccines as the country is one of the global hubs of vaccine manufacture. India-manufactured AstraZeneca vaccine is being administered in the Gulf countries, which early on bought consignments for use in their vaccination campaign
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla were, at that time, in constant touch with their Gulf counterparts.
RETURN OF GULF NRI
At some point in mid-2020, Indian missions in the Gulf started registering non-resident Indians or NRIs who wished to return home and this ultimately saw a rush of over 870,000 expats returning to the Southern state of Kerala alone. Of them, as many as 5,67,138 officially cited loss of job as the reason for returning, according to the department of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA).
The flip side of the coin is that, appalled by their lack of control over health resources, many expats are either coming back to the Gulf or delaying their return to India. One Bahrain-based businesswoman wept as she described how her millionaire ex-Army father was left gasping for lack of oxygen and later, how they had to guard his body in an overcrowded cremation site to prevent it being unceremoniously shoved into a pile.
“Ordinarily, he would have received a war veteran’s flag-draped send-off but we were reduced to hastily cremating his remains in a place as crowded as a railway station,” she said.
S Irudaya Rajan, an expert on international migration and the chair professor at the Ministry of Overseas Indian affairs research unit on international migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, says although returning numbers are high, NORKA estimates are way too high.
“There were about 10 million Indians in the Gulf nations and at best 500,000 of them would have returned, although even that will make it the highest in the past 50 years,” he says, “Moreover, the situation is fluid - tens of thousands have already gone back to their places of work, some of them even with new jobs.”
The BAPS Abu Dhabi Hindu Temple (above) has launched a big drive to mobilise oxygen donations for India. The Dubai Sikh Gurudwara too has sent oxygen to Delhi and Punjab. (Supplied)
GCC TIES TO RESCUE
From being a benevolent Big Brother on top of the pandemic game, dispensing drugs and free vaccines, India has swiftly slipped to urgent crisis-level similar to what Italy and New York went through in 2020.
At this point, PM Modi’s careful wooing of the energy-rich West Asian neighbourhood has borne fruit in tangible and intangible ways. Besides the now-cliched lighting up of the Burj Khalifa in the Indian flag colours as a show of support, even the Abu Dhabi Bourse was lit up in tricolour to symbolically show the economic and commercial links between both countries. Although they kept travel corridors warily open, Gulf airlines were swift to demand additional tests and health certification from travellers to and from India.
India has sought help from various countries under 'Oxygen Maitri' to replenish its dwindling oxygen stock. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Defence (MoD) have identified several countries for procurement of high capacity tankers and oxygen gas cylinders. The Government is coordinating with Singapore and UAE to lift high-capacity tankers by Indian Air Force transport planes.
The governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait have pledged support and already sent the first batch of aid to struggling India. Saudi Arabia is shipping 80 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen to India, in cooperation with the Adani group and British multinational company Linde.
On Friday, Bahrain sent 40 metric ton of cryogenic oxygen by sea on an Indian warship, as part of its aid to oxygen-starved India. Last Monday, India sent a military aircraft to the UAE to transport oxygen containers back for use in its hospitals. The aircraft flew six empty cryogenic containers from Dubai according to media reports in India. The containers will be used to store liquid oxygen that will go on to be used to help patients with Covid-19 to breathe.
The Indian diaspora in the Gulf, which usually throws itself into relief operations, has been somewhat sluggish this time, largely because of very strict money transfer laws governing charity drives.
However, this has not stopped the Abu Dhabi Hindu temple, which is the first of its kind and the Dubai Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara from leading efforts of Indians in the UAE to send oxygen support for Covid-19 patients back home.
The BAPS Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi is working to create a supply chain of oxygen tanks and cylinders which will provide upwards of 440 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen per month starting last Wednesday. “This oxygen will be provided to the needy through the government and BAPS’s own network of Covid hospitals,” stated Swami Brahmaviharidas.
He said the first round of relief being sent this week will include 44 metric tons of liquid oxygen, 30,000 litres of medical oxygen gas in 600 cylinders and 130 oxygen concentrators. “Logistical support for these humanitarian efforts is being provided by the Transworld Group via air and sea.”
The Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara is also pitching in with a monthly supply of 10 oxygen containers, said Surender Singh Kandhari, chairman of the Gurudwara. “We have already organised it. Our first shipment will go on Saturday or Sunday,” he said. “We are going to support the people who need oxygen in Delhi and Punjab.”
Keenly aware of its status as a newly-influential and powerful player in West Asia, the Indian government has turned down all offers for cash donations. A spokesperson of the Indian Consulate in Dubai clarified that India has not asked for cash donations. He said the mission has directed those who expressed interest to support with oxygen to the Indian Red Cross Society, which is working with the health ministry in India for the distribution of medical oxygen.