Oxygen on Taobao: how Chinese and Indian expats are sending life-saving Covid-19 equipment to help combat India’s second wave

a man sitting in a garden: Ritwick Ghosh has lived in mainland China for over a decade, and is using his Mandarin language skills to act as a facilitator between Chinese suppliers and people in India. Photo: Handout Ritwick Ghosh has lived in mainland China for over a decade, and is using his Mandarin language skills to act as a facilitator between Chinese suppliers and people in India. Photo: Handout

The death toll began to pile up in Ritwick Ghosh's social circle back in India. First a college friend succumbed to Covid-19, then a close friend's sister, then another lost a family member. "As long as there is no name or face, it is just a statistic," he said from Shanghai. "The moment there is a name and a face, it is no longer a statistic."

Ghosh works for one of the biggest investment funds in China and has lived in the mainland for over a decade. Over the past 10 days, as the devastating second wave of the pandemic sweeps through his homeland, he has been familiarising himself with oxygen concentrators - machines that relieve the stress from the lungs and have the potential to save lives.

"Think of it as an air purifier," Ghosh said. "Until now I did not even know what the optimum level of oxygen concentration should be in our blood."

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Across India, the demand for medical oxygen continues unabated, with hospitals putting out SOS messages for supplies and people taking to social media to plead for oxygen to keep loved ones alive.

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Oxygen concentrators have therefore become sought-after devices as they can be operated from home and can aid those who have saturation levels between 88 and 92. Experts say one concentrator could service three patients per month.

Other Indians living in China like Ghosh have been buying oxygen concentrators off Taobao, a popular Chinese e-commerce site, and sending them to India. Couriering a 30kg package containing a 10 litre unit costs anything from 3,200 to 10,500 yuan (US$500-1,600).

China is the world's biggest manufacturer of oxygen concentrators. But sourcing them has become complicated, given the deteriorating relations between New Delhi and Beijing following a tense 2020 that saw clashes at their Himalayan border.

Despite Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong tweeting about Covid-19 relief supplies being sent, Indian media reports suggest these supplies were commercial procurements and not sent on humanitarian grounds. China, however, maintains it is still waiting on India to accept its offer of help.

In this context, people like Ghosh have become go-betweens. "I am just facilitating information between people who need it in India and suppliers here," he said. "Many Indians have already tried to order concentrators online or even spoken to Chinese suppliers directly. But since the trust factor is still low between the two countries, they approach me to speak in Mandarin. The mental effort is lower when they know someone who is sitting in China can help."

a room filled with furniture and a table: A volunteer of a charity group checks an oxygen concentrator at a Covid-19 care centre in Srinagar. Photo: AFP © Provided by South China Morning Post A volunteer of a charity group checks an oxygen concentrator at a Covid-19 care centre in Srinagar. Photo: AFP

FULL CAPACITY

Chinese factories producing oxygen concentrators are currently running at full capacity, said Hao Nan, a Suzhou-based volunteer and founder of Zhuoming Info Aid, which has been involved in humanitarian relief efforts for other countries hit by the virus, including Italy, Spain, Iran and France.

Using resources from the site Covid19india.org, he and other volunteers have been trying to get a clearer picture of what is needed in which Indian city. Last year, soon after the worst was over in Wuhan, he and a group of Chinese volunteers compiled a document detailing their experiences in combating the virus. "A year ago, we tried to deliver our experiences from Wuhan especially for volunteer groups across the world. But I guess it is hard for people to learn from other people."

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For now, Hao is focused on procuring supplies. "Just this evening, I tried to order 100 oxygen concentrators but to no avail," he said via Zoom. "I know many of my friends in the non-profit area in China who are trying their best to help Indian friends to purchase oxygen concentrators."

There are no more than 10 factories that can produce the 10-litre machine, he said. These are spread across Shenyang and parts of Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces.

Everywhere you turn, you see news that is really distressing coming out of India

Oxygen on Taobao: how Chinese and Indian expats are sending life-saving Covid-19 equipment to help combat India’s second wave