On 12 May, 15 Covid-19 patients died in Rupendehi and Nepalganj after the hospitals there ran out of oxygen supply. Another 18 patients died the next day in Kathmandu’s Bir Hospital and Trauma Centre because they could not get their oxygen cylinders refilled in time.
Private hospitals in Kathmandu Valley including Medicare, MediCiti, Om, Helping Hands, Longevity, Karuna, Voyodha, Madhyapur Thimi, and Star stopped admitting coronavirus patients, saying they had enough medical oxygen only for existing patients.
Some patients had to quickly find ambulances and move to another hospital with an empty oxygen-equipped bed after the one they were in ran out of oxygen. Those who could not move died in their beds, gasping for air.
Murari Prasad Kharel at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) makes a legal distinction between dying of the coronavirus, and death of a patient due to lack of medical oxygen in a hospital. One is a disease, the other is a violation of human rights, he says.
“It was a given that there would be a new outbreak of Covid-19. Yet, many people lost their lives prematurely due to ineffective hospital management. The government completely failed in its main responsibility of protecting its citizens,” he says.
All coronavirus deaths in hospitals are lumped together under Covid-19 fatalities, however there needs to be a distinction between whether a patient died despite being given all the care necessary, or because the oxygen supply ran out.
These are two completely different conditions and should be treated as such, says a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. Health is a basic human need and it is the state’s responsibility to ensure it, he says, the patients did not die of Covid, but because of negligence.
A bench of Supreme Court Justice Bamkumar Shrestha on 11 May ordered the government to ‘Facilitate the supply of oxygen and medicines required for the treatment of those infected … and immediately dispense human resources taking into account the increasing number of patients.’
Some hospitals in Kathmandu are admitting Covid patients only after families sign an undertaking that the hospital will not be held responsible if the patient dies due to the lack of oxygen. Activists call this ‘a crime against humanity’.
On 14 May Lily Thapa of the NHRC called on Deputy Prime Minister Ishwor Pokhrel who also heads the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) and drew his attention to the oxygen shortage being a human rights violation.
Hospitals in Kathmandu need 22,0000 cylinders of oxygen a day, but presently there are only 12,000 cylinders available per day—both because of the lack of cylinders being sent for refills, as well as insufficient oxygen production.