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Bambolim, Goa – In the early hours of May 12, Yunus Khan’s family watched helplessly as the 30-year-old coronavirus patient choked for breath while on a ventilator at the government-run Goa Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) in the coastal state’s Bambolim town.
According to his 21-year-old brother Abdul Khan, Yunus had been making progress.
“When we panicked and told the doctor, he told us to make a video and send it to the chief minister,” he told Al Jazeera. “His lungs had ruptured, so a ventilator was the only way to stabilise his condition.”
A taxi driver from Ponda in South Goa district, Yunus was admitted to GMCH on May 10 after he was diagnosed with COVID-induced pneumonia. He passed away on May 15 in the hospital’s ICU ward.
“My brother had no comorbidities. He died because there was no oxygen in the hospital,” said Khan.
Oxygen shortage kills dozens
Between May 11 and May 16, dropping oxygen levels at Goa’s largest hospital killed 75 COVID-19 patients.
A doctor working at GMCH, on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera the pipelines carrying oxygen from the main tank were corroded, leading to the leakage.
“There was also a delay in bringing oxygen cylinders from outside,” he added.
Experts believe the high spate of deaths was a culmination of the state government’s months-long inaction in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
Antonio Clovis, president of South Goa Advocates’ Association, said Goa had become a party haven for those in capital Delhi and Mumbai fleeing strict lockdowns in their cities.
“In December-January, there were parties in Goa with 5,000 people attending. Even during the peak of the second wave, Goa did not mandate a COVID-negative certificate from citizens entering the state,” Clovis said.
Effect on tourism, the state’s largest source of revenue, was seen as the reason for the lenient policy.
On May 7, Goa, India’s smallest state in terms of area, had the highest coronavirus positivity rate in the country at 51 percent.
Even before the state government imposed a curfew and lockdown on May 9, the state had the country’s highest number of COVID cases per million people.
Pratik Sawant, president of the Goa Association of Resident Doctors (GARD), told Al Jazeera the hospitals had been overwhelmed with patients in April.
“Against a capacity of 700 beds in GMCH, we had 950 patients. Some of the deaths did occur due to oxygen deficit, but it was a combination of a lack of personnel, dearth of medical equipment, and low supplies of medicines,” he said.
‘This hospital has left us orphaned’
On May 8, Cracy Fernandes, 39, rushed both her parents to GMCH after they showed COVID-like symptoms. After four days of what she termed “complete negligence” by doctors and nurses, both her parents passed away on May 12.
“When we brought them in, they were forced to share one oxygen cylinder. When we checked, the cylinder was empty,” Cracy told Al Jazeera.
She said at one point, the doctor asked her to put the oxygen mask on her father, a 67-year-old patient with diabetes.
“They would ask us to take off the IV drip. How can we do such things without training? We had to run around for 20 minutes just to find a nurse,” she said.
Hours after her mother – who was 60 with no comorbidities – passed away, her father’s condition deteriorated. But there was no empty ICU bed in the hospital, Cracy said.
“The nurse gave him an injection and I noticed his body had turned cold. When I alerted the nurse, they brought an ECG machine but it wasn’t working,” she said.
“My parents’ condition was critical. They needed to be on ventilator beds. But here they were, attached to oxygen cylinders that were empty,” Cracy added.
“My father passed away a few hours after my mother. This hospital has left us orphaned,” Cracy told Al Jazeera.
Court intervenes to save lives
The deplorable state of hospitals in Goa could be seen in videos shared by patients’ relatives, showing crowded wards with patients being made to lie on the floor and medical waste piled up nearby.
On April 28, relatives of a patient roughed up doctors and nurses at GMCH and broke a ventilator. The escalating situation forced GARD to issue a letter on May 1, threatening to withdraw services of 300 doctors on COVID duty across the state.
Sawant said the doctors had been working 14-hour shifts due to the lack of adequate personnel.
“Authorities were giving statements to the media saying there was no issue of beds or oxygen. But when the oxygen got over and patients died, we had to face the ire of angry relatives who demanded to know why they were dying if there was no shortage,” he said.
The letter by GARD prompted the South Goa Advocates’ Association to file a case in the High Court on May 4, asking it to intervene. Clovis said the hearings exposed the claims of the government.
“Things were so dire the court did not want to get into fixing accountability. The sole focus was to save lives,” Clovis told Al Jazeera.
He added that the authorities contradicted themselves when the judge asked follow-up questions. “It’s shocking that the court had to beg the authorities to save lives,” he said.
In its order, the high court chided the state government for evading its duty of saving lives by “pleading helplessness and citing logistical difficulties”.
Facing criticism and pursuant to the court’s order, the state government on May 15 allocated personnel to monitor the oxygen level at the centralised unit in GMCH. A 20,000 litre capacity cryogenic oxygen tank was also installed, which is yet to be functional.
Goa’s Health Secretary Ravi Dhawan told Al Jazeera there was no shortage of oxygen supplies in hospitals across the state. When asked about the reasons for the oxygen shortage that killed patients at GMCH, he declined to comment.
Dr Joseph Britto, former senior lecturer at St. Mary’s Hospital, London who currently resides in Goa, said there would not be enough oxygen, hospital beds, ventilators and clinical staff for the next surge of the virus.
“The only way to stall this pandemic and prevent the next is mass, rapid vaccination across the country followed by hypervigilant epidemiologic surveillance and virus gene sequencing,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We have to stop mopping the floor and turn off the tap.”