The gap in medical oxygen availability “is one of the defining health equity issues, I think, of our age,” says the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who said he survived a severe coronavirus infection thanks to the oxygen he received.
A crisis over the supply of medical oxygen for virus patients has struck in Africa and Latin America, where warnings went unheeded at the start of the pandemic and doctors say the shortage has led to unnecessary deaths, Carley Petesch in Dakar and Lori Hinnant in Paris report.
The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said medical oxygen is a “huge critical need” across the continent and is a main reason that virus patients are more likely to die there than elsewhere.
Doctors in Nigeria anxiously monitor traffic as oxygen deliveries move through the gridlocked streets of Lagos. There and in other countries, desperate families of patients sometimes turn to the black market. Governments take action only after hospitals are overwhelmed and the infected die by the dozens.
In Brazil’s Amazonas state, swindlers were caught reselling fire extinguishers painted to look like medical oxygen tanks. In Peru, people camped out in lines to get cylinders for sick relatives.
Only after the lack of oxygen was blamed for the deaths of four people at an Egyptian hospital in January and six people at one in Pakistan did governments address the problems.