In the past five days, 25 flights loaded with 300 tonnes of emergency Covid-19 relief supplies have landed in India’s capital from around the world. The supplies include 5,500 oxygen concentrators, 3,200 oxygen cylinders and 1,36,000 remdesivir injections, said a spokesperson of the Delhi International Airport Limited.

The emergency aid could save lives. But it seems not to have reached even those who are gasping for oxygen a few km away.

“As far as I know, we have not received anything so far,” said Dr Nutan Mundeja, Director General of Health Services, Delhi government.

Delhi, which has nearly 100,000 active Covid-19 cases and 20,000 patients in hospital, is facing a crippling shortage of oxygen. On May 1, 12 patients, including a doctor, died in Batra Hospital after it ran out of the life-saving gas.

By April 30, Delhi Airport had received 500 oxygen concentrators from the United Kingdom, 700 from Ireland. On May 2, another 1,000 oxygen cylinders arrived from the United States and 150 oxygen concentrators from Uzbekistan.

Yet, hospitals and families continue to make desperate appeals for oxygen on social media, while the status of the emergency supplies remains unclear, barring oxygen generation units sent by France which have been earmarked for eight hospitals, six of them in Delhi.

States in the dark

Not just Delhi, the emergency relief supplies seem not to have been dispatched to other states in India.

“There is no record of Covid related medical aid being sent to domestic destinations,” said the spokesperson of Delhi Airport around noon on Monday.

The Ministry of External Affairs told The Hindu that an Empowered Group of Ministers and officials was fielding requests from state governments. But officials in six states told on Monday that they have not heard from the Centre about whether they will be receiving any share in the emergency supplies.

“We really need these supplies, but we don’t even know they have arrived,” said Kumar Rahul, secretary in Punjab health department.

Tamil Nadu’s health department had not heard from the Centre either. “As of now we have got no intimation about any state allotment,” said J Radhakrishnan, principal secretary in the state health department. “We don’t know what has been received by Delhi and for whom it has been received.”

Bihar, which has seen a surge in the last few weeks, has also not received any of the emergency supplies. A senior health official said the state could do well with some supplies of oxygen concentrators and cylinders.

In adjoining Jharkhand, Ravi Kumar Shukla, the state’s national health mission director, said the state had “no information” of any emergency supplies being allocated to it.

West Bengal, which is in “drastic need of both oxygen cylinders and concentrators”, according to state officials, has not received any either. “Neither has there been any information about allocation,” said Ajoy Chakraborty, the state’s director of health services.

Odisha’s state health department said the state needed more remdesivir supplies. “We haven’t received any international aid,” said Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, additional chief secretary, department of health and family welfare in the state. “I have been in talking to secretary, [the Union department of] pharmaceuticals almost every day about remdesivir.”

Lack of transparency

Much of the Covid-19 assistance arriving at the Delhi Airport is being handed over to the Indian government through the Indian Red Cross Society, a non-profit organisation with close links with the government.

“Consignments that come from abroad are generally handed over to Indian Red Cross Society,” said the airport spokesperson. “It is they who distribute as per GOI [Government of India] directive.” A dedicated logistic facility called the Jeevoday warehouse had been set up over 3,500 square metres at the airport for the interim storage of Covid-19 relief materials, he added.

Four shipments sent by the United States have landed at Delhi airport between Friday morning and Sunday night. “As each US shipment arrives, USAID is transferring ownership of provided materials upon their arrival to the Government of India through the Indian Red Cross organisation,” said a spokesperson of the US embassy in New Delhi. “We refer you to the Government of India for information about the deployment and use of these materials subsequent to their transfer.”

RK Jain, the secretary general of the Indian Red Cross, said its role was confined to getting the consignments cleared through customs and handing them over to HLL Lifecare Limited, a central government company which he said was handling storage and logistics. “The allocation is done by the [health] ministry,” he said.

Jain did not respond to specific queries about the status of shipments that had arrived.

Another official of the Indian Red Cross, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the relief material was being stored in HLL Lifecare Limited’s warehouses in the airport’s cargo section. The official said some of the materials were “under transit”, but refused to give out more details. “You should contact the HLL and the ministry,” the official said.

HLL Lifecare Limited’s chairperson Beji George also refused to field queries. Asked if any materials have been dispatched at all, George said: “It is coming and going. You may check with the ministry of health.”

Questions emailed to Mandeep Bhandari, the joint secretary in the health ministry who oversees the HLL Lifecare Limited’s operations, went unanswered. He did not respond to phone calls.

A person who works in the humanitarian aid sector, who did not want to be identified, said the Indian Red Cross Society did not have adequate personnel to handle relief operations on this scale. Another problem, he said, was that the customs clearance process was taking long, since the authorities were insisting on a declaration of the value of each shipment, even though the government had waived duties. “This is aid sent by other governments,” he said. “It should be cleared in one go.”

Even oxygen concentrators purchased by a private hospital in Delhi were lying stacked up at the Delhi Airport, its lawyer told the Delhi High Court around 1.30 pm on Monday. The court asked the Centre to furnish details about the number of concentrators pending customs clearance at the airport. In a statement released several hours later, the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs said “no such consignment is pending with custom authorities”.

An update: Centre claims Covid-19 foreign aid promptly distributed, but states say process began only on May 3