Panic-ridden public have been flocking to various oxygen manufacturers in Kathmandu as COVID-positive family members gasp for air at hospital compounds.

After the Ministry of Health and Population issued a notice to gas manufacturing companies directing them not to sell or distribute medical oxygen cylinders without the government’s permission, hospitals are faced with acute shortage of oxygen.

At present, hospitals across the country have about 7,000-8,000 oxygen cylinders, which is only enough for merely 50 per cent of the total demand with over 88,000 active COVID cases in the country.

The Ministry has threatened to take legal action against companies found selling or distributing cylinders without its approval.

Responding to the new directive, the Association of Private Health Institutions of Nepal condemned the government’s move saying the unavailability of oxygen and lengthening the process to procure it would deter private hospitals from admitting more COVID patients.

Several hospitals have already announced that they would not admit any more COVID patients without increased oxygen supply.

The COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC), the primary government body dealing with the pandemic with Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokharel as its chair, does not have a single public health expert.

On Saturday, CCMC said that as many as 15,000 oxygen cylinders were urgently needed to treat severely affected COVID-19 patients.

The government on Sunday formed a six-member taskforce to monitor and manage the supply of medical oxygen to hospitals across the country with the aim to address the scarcity of oxygen cylinders.

Meanwhile, general public are fighting tooth and nail to get hold of a cylinder.

The gate of one the oxygen suppliers had a notice that read, “When you come to get medical oxygen cylinders, please bring along the COVID positive report and the doctor’s recommendation that you need oxygen.”

A pickup van driver, who had been waiting in line since 8:00 am outside the Shankar Oxygen Gas Private Limited with empty cylinders from Global Hospital, said, “I’ve been in line since eight in the morning and now it is 2:00 pm, my turn to get the cylinders hasn’t come yet.”

He added, “People with political influence are getting cylinders without having to wait in line, but people like us are made to wait for hours. I have been getting calls from the hospital saying they’re running out of oxygen, but there’s nothing I can do except wait for my turn.”

“I was the second in line when I came here, but vehicles with government number plate barged in and I’m still waiting since five hours.”