I Can’t Breathe: In India, in the USA, or anywhere else, Transform the Oppressive System that is Choking

COVID Oxygen Shortage

`Derek Chauvin found guilty on all three charges for killing George Floyd’ read the news item published on 21 April 2021. The verdict was pronounced eleven months after the video emerged that showed Chauvin kneeling on the neck and back of a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd, handcuffed and lying prone on the street, for 9 minutes 29 seconds on 25 May 2020. Floyd was gasping for breath while repeatedly exclaiming `I can’t breathe’ and ultimately he died.

Back home in India, Shankar Lal Srinivas, age 42 years, succumbed to COVID-19, experienced breathing trouble. His father took him to the hospital but he died gasping as he waited for the oxygen and a bed in Durg, Chhattisgarh. His father claimed that his life could be saved if the doctors could have attended to him. The crumpled system took his life.

G, a 60-year-old woman in a hospital in Nagpur on April 16, 2021, is found COVID positive. Her oxygen level plummeted to 80 at around 2.30 pm but she was forced to share her bed and oxygen supply with two other patients, which implies that she gets only one-third of the oxygen she required as the hospital continued to remain overstretched. By evening, her oxygen level further dropped to 60-70 and still, she could get only one-third of the supply. Her son who could not bear to stand this trauma anymore somehow could manage to procure a jumbo medical cylinder, but just as he rushed to the hospital, his mother stopped breathing.

Kanwaljeet Singh a 58-year-old died on 16 April 2021 in an ambulance while being ferried from one hospital to another as he could not find a bed in any hospital.  He was a resident of Kanpur. His son Niranjan Pal Singh told, “I believe if he had received treatment on time, he could have lived. But no one helped us, the police, the health authorities or the government”.

Vinay Srivastava, 65-year-old, is a journalist. He died in his home in Lucknow gasping for breath. His last tweet was “My oxygen is 31 when some(one) will help me?” addressing the chief minister of UP as he was unable to find a bed or a doctor.

A retired judge Ramesh Chandra, aged 69, requested the authorities to remove his wife’s body from his home. He shared, “My wife and I are both corona positive. Since yesterday morning, I called the government helpline numbers at least 50 times, but no one came to deliver any medicine or take us to the hospital. Because of administration’s laxity, my wife died this morning”.

Deepti Mistri, 22-year-old, a mother, in Lucknow who has no pre-existing health conditions, fell ill while her uncle desperately tried to find a hospital bed when two days later her oxygen level dropped dangerously below 50 percent. A dozen of government or private hospitals refused to admit her. Eventually on 16 April 2021, her uncle could find a small six-bed private clinic that took her for a night, gave her oxygen, and discharged her at 5 am. She died within hours after reaching her home because she could not get oxygen and hospital care.

Many similar harrowing stories are emerging were during the second fatal wave of COVID-19 in India, people are suffering because of non-availability of oxygen, shortage of ventilators, shortage of beds and medicine. Several states such as Delhi and Maharashtra have declared an `oxygen emergency’ and have been pushing the central government to arrange the supplies quickly. The social media feed is full with videos of hospitals full of patients, sick people lying on the ground in the parking lot, wailing families, long queues of ambulances where patients are gasping for their lives while the patient’s attendants struggling to arrange beds, treatment, medicine, plasma and oxygen and of funerals in the crowded crematoriums. Meanwhile, it is alleged that the government is playing politics.

COVID-19 has exposed the illness that plague the system for decades. More than the natural cause, it is the man-made reasons that are causing devastation. The neglect to properly implement prevention and cure of the disease occur because of the weaknesses inherent within the system ranging from the nonavailability of the infrastructure, the omissions at various levels, to the unwillingness of the political masters to respond actively to the pandemic or to protect the health interest of the population. The situation therefore is that the health system, itself is, seemingly on the ventilators and is gasping for life. Consequently, it is the common people wo are being compelled to pay a high price including their lives.

In the USA, the jury verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin has seemingly revived the faith in the democratic process though the life of George Floyd is lost. But the question that remains is that how will India be able to overcome the deadly wave of the coronavirus that is causing much loss and trauma. The tattered health system is affecting the lives of millions across the country. Is there any way to revive and recover from this fatal situation?

The system is dehumanizing 

In the USA, the killing of George Floyd shows how structural and systemic racism is being perpetuated that is discriminating against blacks, while in India, amid the rise of the number of COVID cases, the weakness of the health system is exposed. It is indicating that how over the decades, the health of the general population is being neglected by the successive ruling regimes. Had enough investment been made in the health sector over the decades, or even when the pandemic was declared last year, since then, if enough precautions have been taken, the situation would have been different.

On 21 April 2021, India reported 2,95,041 new cases and 2023 deaths in 24 hours taking the total death toll to 1,82,553 with 21,57,538 active cases. On 22 April 2021, this number increased to 3.16 lakhs breaking all the records. The strain that has affected this time is virulent and making a deadly impact. The requirement for oxygen is high in the second wave of coronavirus. Doctors are helplessly watching people die and even those deaths that could be prevented could not be stopped because of the dearth of basic facilities and supplies.

Shortage of vaccine is being reported amidst the news of India preparing to administer 100 million doses when in the parallel universe world’s richest cricket tournament is being played every evening, thousands attended the election rallies and millions participated in the Kumbh Mela where all protocols were shattered as devotees gathered for five days. More than 5000 infections have been reported. One of the reports added, “The political class is guilty of holding huge political rallies in the middle of a raging pandemic”. The opposition leaders slammed the government for its omission stating that “people are crying for oxygen, govt is laughing at the rallies”. The government is being accused of playing domestic politics over public health.

The ironic situation has also exposed the fact that the system is riddled with corruption, red-tapism, apathy, lack of fixed accountability, inability, and the unwillingness of the political leaders to prioritize health as a fundamental right. Some alleged that it is the majoritarian mindset and the culture of otherization and alienation, that is at the heart of failure to fight the pandemic. Besides, the privatization of health care that has been pushed over the past few decades has added fuel to fire while devastating the lives of the common people. (Nigam S, 2020) Currently, the situation is that neither the public health infrastructure nor the private institutions are in a position to respond to the deadly pandemic. Over the years the spending on health remained abysmally low. India spent only one percent of its GDP on health in comparison to the neighboring Bhutan that invested 2.5 percent of GDP on health, Sri Lanka (1.6) whereas Nepal (1.1) The authorities seemingly have omitted to fulfill their duties to galvanize the health infrastructure over the years leading to the situation causing the death of thousands for the want of basic amenities.

The Government of India has approved Rs 15,000 crores `COVID Emergency Response and Health Preparedness Package’ in April 2020 to boost public health infrastructure. The data suggests that till January 2021, India has added only 94,880 oxygen-supported beds. Most of these are added in Delhi (51% additional beds – increased to 5997 from 115) and Tripura (52% additional beds – 506 from 10 beds) while other states have not made many efforts except Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu added 16,000 to 17,000 beds respectively. The ICU beds all over the country grew to 36,008 in March 2021 from 27,360 in April 2020. Out of this 8,648, Maharashtra added 672 ICU beds while Delhi added 1861 beds. From March 2020 to April 2021 only 10,461 new ventilators are added all over the country. While Haryana, Punjab and Puducherry, Goa, Assam, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Jharkhand have reduced the number of beds by 79 percent as well as lessen the number of available ventilators by 78 percent.

The state could have taken steps to augment the health system but it has squandered the opportunity. Rather the capitalist approach has failed the people. No initiatives have been taken to create oxygen banks or to activate the manufacturing plants, stocking medicine, or to augment the machinery to produce the required number of vaccines. The seriousness of the pandemic is neglected and this omission is affecting the majority of the population.

The situation is that in the absence of vigilant media that could play as the fourth pillar of democracy, social media is being used to share the stories of pain and sufferings where the cries of common people are being echoed across the country that reflected the pain of middle-class Indians. For instance, the son of the former President tweeted an appeal to seek help when the country boasted itself as `a pharmacy to the world’ and celebrated the `Tika Utsav’ while exporting the vaccine and oxygen under its diplomacy program. The grim stories tell the tale of the capitalist-driven system that has devalued human life.

Moreover, the images, videos, and reports that emerged from the hospitals and crematoriums show the distress, fear, despair, and disarray of the system that is affecting low-income families. The poor who lack resources or connections and those on margins are facing the worse They are finding it difficult to get admitted to a hospital that is charging huge money arbitrarily. Some are not even being provided immediate attention or care.

The System is on Ventilator – Gasping for Oxygen

Hate has taken the life of a black man in the USA. Derek Chauvin knelt for more than 9 minutes because of his pride and ego, as per the prosecutor who argued the case in the US court. The defense in this case took the plea that he was acting as a `reasonable officer’ would in that situation and that there is no evidence that he purposely or intentionally used unlawful force. However, in his closing remarks, the prosecutor stated that “He (Derek Chauvin) was not going to let these bystanders tell him what to do. He was going to do what he wanted. And there was nothing, nothing they could do about it because he has the authority. He had the power, and the other officers and bystanders were powerless. …He was trying to win and George Floyd paid for it with his life”.

In India, the public health system is on the ventilator because of the unwillingness as well as the failure of the political leadership to act in a timely manner. It is gasping for the want of oxygen. It is crumpling because of the scarcity of testing kits, vaccines, and hospital beds.  The system is not at all prepared to handle the pandemic. The situation is so dire that at some places, three patients are being compelled to share one bed and many are collapsing due to a shortage of oxygen and care. The widespread corruption and mismanagement are further causing more disasters. The medicines such as Remdesivir and the oxygen cylinders are being sold in the black market where a simple medicine that costs Rs 250 is being sold for Rs 15,000 to 18,000. People are being compelled to find oxygen and medicines for their patients before being admitted into a hospital while at other places, low supplies of oxygen and medicine are leading to the situation of robberies of drugs raising questions about the policy of `atamnirbhar’ Bharat.

It is on 13 March 2020, the WHO has released data on clinical management of severe acute respiratory infection during COVID-19, and in April 2020, WHO based on the available data has released its guidance document for oxygen source and distribution at COVID treatment centers to quantify oxygen demand, identify available sources and surge appropriate responses, especially for low and middle-income countries. Yet, these guidance notes seemingly are not being followed. No preparations have been made to handle the extreme situations. One of the reports observed that “Every principle of pandemic management has been thrown to the winds”.  Moreover, it has been said that declaring premature victory gave chance for the virus to rise again.

Resultingly, the existing situation is that the data is being manipulated as the ground realities indicate a worse situation. Hospitals are turning away patients because there are no beds. Chemists have run out of essential supplies. Not all patients could be tested and for those tested for COVID-19, the results are delayed. Many died before their results could arrive, therefore even for non-COVID deaths 2.5 times increase has been reported. For instance, the report shows that UP recorded 104 COVID deaths in 24 hours on 15 April 2021, but Lucknow alone saw 108 funerals. In several places, trucks have been used to transport as many as 10 dead bodies at a time for cremation. The cost of a funeral has gone up within a few days and wait for a spot for cremation has increased from 15 to 20 minutes to five to six hours. The graveyards are being piled up with the COVID dead. The stench of death from the crematoriums inundated with the COVID corpses is affecting many cities across the state of Delhi, UP, Bihar, MP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and in some places, the authorities have put up an opaque fence around the place where the corpses are being burned.

When the executive and administration failed to act, it is the legal system, at some places that took the onus of handling the system. A division bench of Allahabad High Court noting the surge in the pandemic, imposed lockdown in five cities in UP – Prayagraj, Lucknow, Varanasi, Kanpur, and Gorakhpur while noting that no concrete plan has been chalked out by the state government while holding the chaotic governance accountable for the failure of the system. The Bench noted, “one would laugh at us that we have enough to spend on elections and very little to spend on public health”.

Further, the division bench of the Patna High Court too noted the state’s omission and expressed strong displeasure over the absence of any action plan by the state government to address the surge in coronavirus cases in the middle of the pandemic. It sees the government inaction as a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution and directed the State Human Rights Commission to conduct surprise inspections at the COVID hospitals. It noted that “if the court reaches the conclusion that COVID patients are being allowed to die because of lack of oxygen supply, the court will surely intervene”. The Jharkhand High Court too observed that the state is reeling under a `medical emergency’ and directed the state to inform about the steps taken to improve supply of medicine.

While upholding the notion that every life is important and valuable, the division bench of the Delhi HC directed the center to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens by all means and to look into the aspect of the shortage of Oxygen in the city hospitals supply on an urgent basis while stating that “Industries can wait, while human lives once lost are lost”. While slamming the government, the court asked “is there no sense of humanity left?”  It further directed the central government to explore all the possibilities to ensure supply of oxygen to the hospitals. “We want you to undertake maximum procurement from all sources. Beg, borrow or steal, whatever you have to provide oxygen. You have plenary sovereign powers. We cannot see people dying because of oxygen shortage”, emphasized the court.

Save Lives, Transform the Lifeless System

Joe Biden, the President of USA, after the verdict in the case of George Floyd’s death trial, stated, ”Enough, enough of senseless killings. Today’s verdict is a step forward”. He further added, “None of us can turn away. None of us can be silent. None of us can any longer, can we hear the words `I can’t breathe’ and do nothing”. Similarly, considering the situation of the health system in India, none of us can turn our backs to the people who are gasping for breath because of the failed system.

The experts suggested mass vaccination as a safe and reliable method to end the pandemic. However, the need is to prioritize the high-risk population. The vaccine nationalism at the global level indicates that this can be possible once sufficient measures are being taken to achieve vaccine equity.

Moreover, important is to prioritize health care while upscaling and upgrading the system immediately. Quality, affordable health care is a basic right. `Health care for All’ is not a new concept, vital is to enforce the policy provisions. Investing more in health infrastructure, research, setting up labs, activating oxygen plants, making medicines and vaccines available and accessible at the low cost, increasing number of beds, procuring ventilators and other equipment, generating awareness about the prevention, emphasizing social security measures including making provisions for the income and food security, revamping health system, all such steps are required on the urgent basis.

Racism, structural discrimination, systemic failures, capitalism, greed, apathy or the failed systems, all are man-made disasters and can be controlled if we choose humanity over any other virtue.


Shalu Nigam is an advocate, researcher, and activist working at the intersection of gender, law, governance, and human rights issues. She has done PhD in Social Work and has obtained a degree in law. Her publications include The Founding Mothers: 15 Women Architects of the Indian Constitution (coauthor, 2016) and Women and Domestic Violence Law in India: A Quest for Justice (2019). Her forthcoming title is Domestic Violence Law in India: Myths and Misogyny. She has been a regular contributor to countercurrents.org and has published essays in journals such as the South Asia JournalSocial ActionInternational Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Legal News and Views. Some of her work is available here and here.


Bar and Bench (2021)  Industries can wait, human lives once lost are lost: Delhi HC hears the plea on COVID-19 situation in NCR April 20, https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/delhi-high-court-hears-plea-on-covid-19-situation-in-the-ncr-live-updates

BBC.com (2021) COVID in Uttar Pradesh: Coronavirus overwhelms India’s most populous state, April 20, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56799303

Bisht SS (2021) Many deaths not enough hearses: Raipur’s COVID toll sees hospitals truck bodies to funerals, The Print, April 16, https://theprint.in/in-pictures/many-deaths-not-enough-hearses-raipurs-covid-toll-sees-hospitals-truck-bodies-to-funerals/640468/

Biswas S (2021) COVID-19: How India failed to prevent a deadly second wave, BBC.com, April 19,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56771766

Chandna H and S Agarwal (2020) Rs 60,000 for a Rs 5,500 vial – how remdesivir black-market thrives as COVID cases rises, The Print, July 27,  https://theprint.in/health/rs-60000-for-a-rs-5500-vial-how-remdesivir-black-market-thrives-as-covid-cases-rise/468695/

Dasgupta S (2021) Unprecedented crisis: No beds, gasping patients, rising death toll in Chhattisgarh’s Durg, The Print, April 17, https://theprint.in/health/unprecedented-crisis-no-beds-gasping-patients-rising-death-toll-in-chhattisgarhs-durg/641369/

Ellis-Petersen H (2021) The system has collapsed: India’s descent into a Covid hell, The Guardian,  April 21, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/21/system-has-collapsed-india-descent-into-covid-hell

Gudavarthy A (2021) Behind the disastrous response to pandemic lies a majoritarian mindset, The Wire, April 22, https://thewire.in/politics/behind-the-disastrous-response-to-the-pandemic-lies-a-majoritarian-mindset

In Re Inhuman conditions at Quarantine centers and for providing better treatment to corona positive versus the State of UP PIL No. 574 of 2020 Allahabad High Court  https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/covid-19-allahabad-hc-imposes-lockdown-in-5-cities-till-april-26-172798

James N (2021) Young doctors `overwhelmed’ as beds oxygen shortage leaves patients gasping, Hindu Business Online, April 20, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/amid-crippling-shortages-of-hospital-beds-and-oxygen-healthcare-workers-are-struggling-to-save-lives/article34365229.ece

Kutty S (2021) India’s COVID Mismanagement: Thousands die for the want of ventilators, Medicine, The Nation Herald, April 17, https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/opinion/indias-covid-mismanagement-thousands-die-for-want-of-ventilators-medicines

Levenson E and A Cooper (2021) Derek Chauvin found guilty of all three charges for killing George Floyd, Edition.CNN.com April 21 https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/20/us/derek-chauvin-trial-george-floyd-deliberations/index.html

Livemint.com (2021) COVID-19: Delhi HC asked the Centre to look into oxygen supply shortage in capital, April 19 https://www.livemint.com/news/india/covid19-delhi-hc-asks-centre-to-look-into-oxygen-supply-shortage-in-capital-11618830953056.html

Malhotra J (2021) Why PM Modi is putting faith before science on Covid is damaging India’s reputation abroad, The Print, April 20, https://theprint.in/opinion/global-print/why-pm-modi-putting-faith-before-science-on-covid-is-damaging-indias-reputation-abroad/642631/

Naqvi M and R Pollard (2021) `We are being lied to’ – PM  Modi faces criticism for holding rallies as Covid deaths mount, The Print, April 19 https://theprint.in/india/we-are-being-lied-to-pm-modi-faces-criticism-for-holding-rallies-as-covid-deaths-mount/642396/

NE Now News (2021) Over 5000 tested positive at Kumbh Mela, April 17, https://nenow.in/top-news/over-5000-test-covid19-positive-at-kumbh-pm-modi-appeals-to-keep-kumbh-mela-symbolic.html

Nigam S (2020) At Beijing 25+ Battling the Backlash in the post-COVID World: A Perspective from the Third World, Paper presented at the Beijing Platform for Action at 25 Conference: Progress, retreat and future of Women’s Rights, held on 3rd December 2020 at UNSW, Australia. https://www.humanrights.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/2020-11/NIGAM%2C%20Shalu_Paper%20submission.pdf

Nigam S (2021) Ensuring vaccine equity, erasing vaccine nationalism: Upholding the Human Rights and Justice Framework, April 14 https://psyarxiv.com/9kduw/

Pandey K (2021) Is India’s public health infrastructure ready to tackle second covid wave? Here’s what the data say, Down to Earth, April 6  https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/health/is-india-s-public-health-infrastructure-ready-to-tackle-the-second-covid-19-wave-here-s-what-data-says-76320

Parkin B, J Singh and S Findlay (2021) `It is much worse this time: India’s devastating second wave, The Financial Times, April 20, https://www.ft.com/content/683914a3-134f-40b6-989b-21e0ba1dc403

Phadke M (2021) How BJP tried to buy Remdesivir directly from firms and gaps in Thackeray govt fanned controversy, The Print April 19, https://theprint.in/politics/how-bjp-tried-to-buy-remdesivir-directly-from-firm-gaps-in-thackeray-govt-fanned-controversy/642173/

Purohit K (2021) India is seeing a terrifying second wave of COVID-19, Foreign Policy, April 20, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/20/india-coronavirus-second-wave-modi-politics/

Sherrif M K (2021) In Second COVID wave, more need oxygen, death rate almost the same, The Indian Express, April 20,  https://indianexpress.com/article/india/covid-wave-india-oxygen-7280772/

Shivani Kaushik v Union of India HC of Patna Civil Writ 353 of 2021 https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/patna-high-court-directs-state-human-rights-commission-to-conduct-surprise-inspections-at-covid-hospitals-392202.pdf

Srivastava A (2021) Lucknow: Unable to get hospital bed for three days, wife of retired district judge succumbs to Covid-19, India Today, April 15,  https://www.indiatoday.in/coronavirus-outbreak/story/up-lucknow-retired-district-judge-wife-covid19-coronavirus-ambulance-hospital-bed-1791287-2021-04-15

Thadani A (2021) Second wave of COVID-19: Causes and Solution, April 4, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/second-wave-covid-19-causes-solutions/

The Times of India (2020) India playing the role of pharmacy to the world, says PM Modi at the Annual Invest India Conference, October 8  https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-playing-the-role-of-pharmacy-to-the-world-says-pm-modi-at-annual-invest-india-conference/articleshow/78556403.cms#:~:text=NEW%20DELHI%3A%20India%20is%20playing,around%20150%20countries%20so%20far.

The Times of India (2021) Jharkhand: Hearing in HC over COVID-19 medicine shortage today, April 21, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ranchi/hearing-in-hc-over-cov-med-shortage-today/articleshow/82186390.cms

The Week (2021) People are crying for oxygen, govt is laughing at the rallies: Priyanka, April 21 https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2021/04/21/people-are-crying-for-oxygen-govt-is-laughing-at-rallies-priyanka.html

Venkataramakrishnan R (2021) As India is battered by severe COVID-19 second wave, where is Narendra Modi and his government? The Scroll.in, April 16, https://scroll.in/article/992402/as-india-is-battered-by-severe-covid-19-second-wave-where-is-narendra-modi-and-his-government

Viser M (2021) `At least, God, now there is some justice’: Biden says guilty verdict in Floyd murder offers a chance to reform, The Washington Post April 21,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-says-he-hopes-the-chauvin-jury-reaches-the-right-verdict/2021/04/20/6f9f2fd0-a207-11eb-a7ee-949c574a09ac_story.html

WHO (2020) Clinical management of severe acute respiratory infection (SARI) when COVID-19 disease is suspected: Interim Guidance, March 13,  https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/clinical-management-of-novel-cov.pdf

WHO (2020) Oxygen Sources and distribution for COVID-19 treatment centres: Interim Guidance, April 4, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/oxygen-sources-and-distribution-for-covid-19-treatment-centres

Yadav J (2021) COVID patient’s bodies pile up at Lucknow Crematoriums as staff is scared or visting Kumbh, The Print, April 14  https://theprint.in/india/covid-patients-bodies-pile-up-at-lucknow-crematoriums-as-staff-is-scared-or-visiting-kumbh/639317/

Yadav J (2021) `Dead Bodies all Over’: Lucknow funerals tell a story starkly different from UP govt’s claim, The Print, April 16 https://theprint.in/india/dead-bodies-all-over-lucknow-funerals-tell-a-story-starkly-different-from-up-govts-claims/640741/



Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

My Pandemic in Three Acts

Dealing with the Disease that Never Seems to Leave Town On New Years’ Eve 2019, Americans celebrated the advent of the roaring ‘20s with fireworks and champagne, amid ominous news…

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News