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May 6, 2021

India’s Long Struggle to Breathe

Experts at the University of Chicago calculated that Delhi residents lose close to a decade of life owing to the pollution.
By
Daniel Block

The tweet went out at 9:46 p.m. on April 21, Indian Standard Time. “This is an #SOS call,” wrote Fortis Healthcare, a medical company headquartered in northern India. One of their hospitals, they said, had only 45 minutes of oxygen left. Roughly fourteen hours later, Max Healthcare, a hospital chain based in Delhi, sent out a similar message: “SOS – Less than an hour’s Oxygen supplies at Max Smart Hospital & Max Hospital Saket.” They tagged Delhi’s chief minister, India’s health minister, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sixty-one minutes after that, news broke that Sir Ganga Ram hospital, also in Delhi, had actually run out of high-pressure oxygen. Likely as a result, 25 patients had died.

Over the past two weeks, India has posted more than 4.5 million Covid-19 cases, shattering global pandemic records. Hospitals have run out of beds and supplies, stranding many of the country’s sickest patients. The government has recorded more than 200,000 pandemic deaths. That is by itself an enormous number, but given the country’s uneven, substandard health care infrastructure—and the deliberate efforts by some of India’s 36 states and territories to avoid tallying fatalities—it is almost certainly an undercount.

India’s Covid-19 crisis is a singular catastrophe. It’s also not the nation’s first respiratory disaster. Most years, much of the country is blanketed in thick smog. According to the World Air Quality Report, six of the planet’s ten most polluted cities are in India. Delhi clocks in at number five, making it earth’s smoggiest capital. On average, particulate matter in the country’s urban air is more than five times what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers acceptable.

It is impossible to measure the exact toll of each malpractice. There are not yet (and may never be) statistics on how many coronavirus patients would have survived if the government had properly managed a second wave. But given all the desperate pleas for supplies, the skyrocketing prices for cylinders, and the fact that states have literally sent armed guards to try and guarantee that their oxygen shipments aren’t hijacked, it’s safe to assume the number is high. Estimating pollution-related deaths is also tricky, but in a study published in The Lancet, researchers concluded that smog caused 1.24 million premature deaths in India during 2017 alone. Experts at the University of Chicago calculated that Delhi residents lose close to a decade of life owing to the pollution. In India, politicians’ bad planning and policies are depriving citizens, sick with Covid-19 and not, of the air they need to survive.

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