This morning I spent a long time on the phone with someone called CL (not real initials). CL was the person I got as I searched online for oxygen concentrators that I could then FedEx to my family in Kolkata, India. If it worked, the idea was to procure several more for other families, especially those that did not have relatives abroad. Many colleagues are on the lookout for similar devices. Since the oxygen shortage, the shortage in hospital beds, and other COVID related services in India became headline news in international newspapers, middle class, diasporic Indians have been scrambling to find ways of helping their families. Many students and colleagues at the University have been fundraising. Others are taking turns calling hospitals trying to organize services long distance. The rush for oxygen concentrators is the latest attempt to make oneself meaningful in a crisis that has revealed serious downsides of our globalized, dispersed, lives.
CL told me that I had to make a decision quickly. Their website has a ticker “Unfortunately, we cannot ship to India and due to the pandemic, we are currently out of stock of all 5L and 10L oxygen concentrators.” So if I were lucky enough to find one, I would have to take care of the shipping and handling. Will the equipment reach my folks in time? Even if it did, what good would it do? As one family member put it, “it will buy us time until we get a hospital bed.” If oxygen saturation levels dip due to the virus, you need a high flow of oxygen into your lungs. No portable oxygen concentrator will be good enough. Right now, though, it is a desperate rope in conditions of scarcity: of oxygen, hospital beds, ambulances, but most all of humans who can physically take the ill to the hospital.
Rochona Majumdar is Associate Professor in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.