Sayan Baishnab has just strapped a plastic inhaler to a friend’s face while his assistant holds up a contraption made from a takeout box, a mineral water bottle, electrical wires and a tube carrying mysterious bubbles from the bottle to the inhaler. Tense music plays in the background as Baishnab leans back to inspect his friend’s inhalation. A few more suspenseful seconds pass before his friend, who looks visibly under pressure, takes off the inhaler and announces the verdict: “Oxygen ashche.” Baishnab grabs the inhaler and straps it around his own nose and mouth. One breath later, he goes into raptures: “WOW! Really awesome! 100% Oxygen ashche!”
What the 22-year-old college student just did on camera is try to separate oxygen from water using electrolysis, a chemical experiment outlined in his old school textbook. Off-camera, though, the YouTuber isn’t very sure of the efficacy of his homemade oxygen. “I am not satisfied with the product. It has to be cleaner. To get this medically approved, it will need to be massively improved upon. Such small quantity can’t be administered to a corona patient even in an emergency,” he said over the phone from a village near Kolkata. But watching the news, he said, he was compelled to try. “The situation is very bad. India is facing a lot of fatalities. I make videos based on viewers’ demand, and this is what my subscribers were requesting in message groups,” he said.
The viewers’ demands spring from India’s urgent need for oxygen as coronavirus infections officially cross 18 million and unofficially much higher. As hospitals run out of oxygen and governments shun accountability, families and friends are resorting to desperate measures, including begging for, borrowing, and stealing cylinders, to keep the patients breathing. Many of them are searching the internet for tips on making oxygen at home. As a search term, ‘how to make oxygen at home’ recorded a value of 100 on Google Trends on 23 April. It was at 0 on 15 April. Officially, 1,153 Indians died of covid-19 on 15 April and 2,624 on 23 April. Oxygen shortage has kept coming up in the bereaved families’ accounts. Social media’s content creators have been busy at work. Over the past few weeks, dozens of Indian YouTubers have posted videos of themselves making oxygen at home; the views range from thousands to millions. The comments are revealing:
“Can this be used on corona patients?”
“Is this for medical use?”
“Was searching for this after hearing today’s news…”
The trend worries medical professionals. Swapneil Parikh, physician and co-author of The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Global Pandemic, explained the risks: “I am a doctor, not a chemist, but I do know about medical oxygen. Firstly, you need to produce a lot of it. Then you need to pressurize it. It needs to have very high purity. There are many challenges to making medical-grade oxygen. It’s also a hazardous process because oxygen supports combustion, and it can cause explosions. Even if you could produce it in sufficient quantities or at sufficient purity, you will still need equipment to pressurize it into a canister. I just don’t see that as being a useful intervention.”
But the home experiments are unstoppable. On 22 April, Kritarth Tiwari, a high school student from Gonda district in Uttar Pradesh, posted a YouTube video of himself making oxygen at home. “I was watching the news. There is a crisis going on. Too many deaths are taking place because of shortage of oxygen.” He was also concerned about his own village. “It’s not yet an urgent situation here. But, day by day, the situation is becoming worse. The hospitals in my area are running out of oxygen gradually.” Uttar Pradesh reported over 300,000 active cases on 29 April; the virus is reported to be raging through its villages where government hospitals are barely prepared for it.
Tiwari searched the internet for how to make oxygen at home. “I researched on YouTube. The materials were easily available in the market. I tried a basic reaction. I borrowed it from class X NCERT book. Hydrogen peroxide. Six percent solution. Reaction with potassium permanganate. You can buy crystals. Exothermic reaction. Oxygen and manganese dioxide are released.” As a search term, “hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanganate” has risen sharply on Google Trends through April.
Tiwary is privately as unsure of his homemade oxygen as anyone who has publicly tried. “Everything has merits and demerits. This process has many demerits. This reaction creates a lot of heat.” He will keep trying, though. “Medical-grade oxygen is 95% pure. We must learn how to do that at home. It’s the government’s job to supply oxygen, but I think the main problem is that it is not able to transport it,” he said. If critical patients can’t get oxygen in the national capital, he wonders how his family members in Gonda would survive a shortage. “If something happens in my family, I will first seek help from my official channels. If there is no response, I will try my own experiment.”
In five days of posting it, Rahul Soni’s homemade oxygen video has accumulated 150,000 views. “This is the first video of mine that has been so popular,” said the engineering student from Ajmer. “But I have put in a disclaimer. I don’t own any responsibility. Make it at your own risk. Two people have sent me videos asking me if they have done it all right. I told them to consult a doctor before trying it on a covid patient.” He, too, was inspired by the news to take the matter into his own hands. “Common person shouldn’t even have to worry about whether the government will supply oxygen or not. It should be readily available if such an epidemic is raging—that too for two years,” he said.
If the government won’t do its job, the youth would have to step in, he said. Through India’s second wave, young volunteers have taken up searches for hospital beds, oxygen and medicines across the country even as these resources become scarcer.
“Engineers must pitch in. I am working on something for serious patients. I have an idea on how to make a ventilator. Homemade. And another one on pressurized oxygen system,” Soni said.
The DIY spirit might be going too far in this case.
“Everyone wants to do something, but people don’t understand that the single greatest intervention they can do right now is to break the chain and reduce the number of infections,” Dr. Parikh said. “That is an evidence-based intervention. That’s the greatest contribution people can make right now.”
But left to their own devices currently, Indians are bracing for worse times ahead.
“We have to think about the future. We have to prepare,” said Baishnab. “Every district, every village should have an oxygen plant. Government has to be mindful of it. Common citizens, too, must know how to produce oxygen. So far, it’s the corona, but it can be another virus next. We have to find oxygen—from any source.”