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.
These two tragedies may be epidemiologically related. A study by researchers at Harvard University found that even a mild increase particulate matter is connected to an 8 percent increase in Covid-19 deaths. Scientists at the University of Cambridge discovered a link between the severity of Covid-19 infections and long-term exposure to pollution. As a result, since the beginning of the pandemic, experts have worried that India’s perennial smog could make its citizens exceptionally vulnerable to the illness.
But there’s a connection between the pandemic and smog disasters that extends beyond lungs and into politics: massive governmental failures, especially at the national level. Despite advance warnings, public officials did not transport enough oxygen out of plants in the east before the second wave began to rise in March, and they failed to sufficiently increase production elsewhere. India could at least mitigate its air quality crises, as many other countries have, but policymakers have not properly enforced antipollution laws that would decrease smog. Instead, officials have downplayed the severity of the pandemic and the pollution, blamed both disasters on opponents, or been silent altogether. In the case of Covid-19, leading politicians actively encouraged mass gatherings even as caseloads reached new heights.
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 inThe 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…