Coronavirus | ‘Logistics is key to easing oxygen crisis’

‘Situation to improve in coming weeks’

The oxygen shortages at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients leading to multiple deaths, which has turned the spotlight on the production and supply of the life-sustaining element, may start easing in the coming weeks, multiple challenges notwithstanding, officials in the logistics and gas production industries said.

“The government has a grip on the situation and things are getting more and more under control,” said Varun Agarwal, Director of Ellenbarrie Industrial Gases. “I am hopeful that by next week we will not see headlines of people dying [for want of oxygen],” Mr. Agarwal added.

A sector with just a clutch of producers, who operate on a model of plants at their locations and at key customer sites, particularly steel plants, the demand for medical oxygen was thus far a fraction of total output. The ratio changed with the surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the second, deadlier wave that has seen hospitals running of oxygen, beds and certain medicines.

With an estimated daily production capacity in excess of 7,000 tonnes of oxygen, much of the present situation could have been averted with better preparedness and planning, a senior executive with a leading oxygen producing firm said, pointing out that the road transportation of the element had inherently unique challenges. This includes the high investment that is required on the specialised containers, of capacities ranging from 3-20 tonnes, and could cost upwards of ₹45 lakh, the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The Centre, for its part, has ordered stopping supply of oxygen for non-essential industries, advised producers to enhance output, taken measures to speed up road movement as well as explored rail and air movement. It has also sanctioned funds for setting up PSA oxygen plants at hospitals.

Transporters have been working 24/7 to reach oxygen to hospitals on time, said P. Senthil Kumar of Namakkal-based Kongunadu Road Lines, which operates a fleet of cryogenic tankers. These vehicles are being operated with two drivers so that they are always on the move, he added.

With an estimated 1,000-1,200 such oxygen tankers in operation and any addition to the fleet being slow given the limited market they cater to and the high investment required, the emphasis has been on managing with existing resources.

Abhishek Gupta, joint secretary of the All India Transporters’ Welfare Association said the government should task a central team to monitor cylinder availability as the requirement will be high over the next few months.

LNG tanker operators had also been advised to repurpose their vehicles, Mr. Kumar said, signaling that the sector was now on a war footing to help boost supply.

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