India's Supreme Court Won't Punish Government Leaders for Country's Low Oxygen Supply

India's Supreme Court on Wednesday decided against punishing government officials in New Delhi for failing to supply an adequate level of oxygen to overstretched hospitals as the country faces a record-breaking COVID-19 outbreak.

The ruling suspended an earlier contempt notice issued to the government by the New Delhi High Court against officials who defied an order to supply enough oxygen to more than 40 overwhelmed hospitals. If found guilty, the government officials could have faced six months in prison and a fine, the Associated Press reported.

"Ultimately putting officers in jail or hauling officers for contempt will not bring oxygen. Please tell us steps to solve this," Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud said in court, according to AP.

On Wednesday, India recorded 382,315 new coronavirus cases, reaching a total of more than 20.6 million. An additional 3,780 deaths in the last 24 hours brought the total to 226,188, though health experts predict both case and death figures to be undercounted.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

India Oxygen COVID-19
India's Supreme Court on Wednesday decided not to punish government officials for failing to supply enough oxygen to overwhelmed hospitals. Above, people wait in a line to refill oxygen cylinders for coronavirus patients at a refilling center in New Delhi on May 5, 2021. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the New Delhi High Court court, which had summoned two Home Ministry officials for a hearing Wednesday, said the grim reality is that hospitals are reducing the number of beds and asking patients to move elsewhere. The court is hearing petitions filed by several hospitals and nursing homes struggling with irregular oxygen supplies.

"You can put your head in the sand like an ostrich, we will not. We are not going to take no for an answer," Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said Tuesday.

Raghav Chaddha, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi Party governing New Delhi, said hospitals were getting only 40% of their 700-metric-ton (772-U.S.-ton) daily needs through the federal government, and the local government was arranging additional supplies to meet the shortfall and setting up new oxygen plants.

A massive wave of infections since April has pushed India's health care system to the brink, with people begging for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds on social media and news channels.

Bodies have been piling up at cremation grounds and in graveyards with relatives waiting for hours for last rites.

Dileep Kumar, a student, said he was asked by hospital authorities to move his father to another hospital in Ghaziabad, a town on the outskirts of New Delhi, after the first hospital ran out of oxygen.

Authorities are scrambling to add more beds, sending oxygen from one corner of the country to another, and scaling up manufacturing of the few drugs effective against COVID-19.

Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said this week that "a lockdown is now the only option because of a complete lack of strategy by the Indian government."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is reluctant to impose a national lockdown for fear of the economic fallout. Modi said last month that it should be the last resort.

But nearly a dozen states have imposed curbs on their own.

The most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people, implemented a five-day lockdown this week. The country's second- and third-most populated states of Maharashtra and Bihar are also under lockdowns with varying curbs.

Efforts to scale up a vaccination drive are hampered by the shortage of doses. India, a country of 1.4 billion, has so far administered 160 million doses.

The global community is extending a helping hand. The United States, Britain, Germany and several other nations are rushing therapeutics, rapid virus tests and oxygen to India, along with materials needed to boost domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.

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AP Photo Oxygen
Health workers bring a patient to be admitted at a government COVID-19 hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on April 27, 2021. The country has witnessed scenes of people dying outside overwhelmed hospitals, funeral pyres lighting up the night sky and authorities getting requests to cut down trees in parks because crematoriums have run out of fuel. Ajit Solanki/Associated Press