May 25, 2021 - World

Dozens of countries face severe oxygen shortages due to COVID surges

Workers upload oxygen cylinders at a hospital in Lalitpur, Nepal in May 2021.

Workers upload oxygen cylinders at a hospital in Lalitpur, Nepal in May 2021. Photo: Sunil Pradhan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dozens of countries are facing oxygen shortages so acute that they threaten to result in the "total collapse" of their health systems, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported Monday.

Why it matters: Many of these countries already faced oxygen shortages before the pandemic. Increased demand from COVID-19, coupled with low vaccination rates, could leading to devastating results, per the Bureau.

The big picture: The countries facing severe oxygen shortages include Argentina, Iran, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and South Africa, among others.

  • These nations have seen marked increases in demand for oxygen the past few months.
  • In several of these countries, "fewer than one in 10 people have received a dose of a vaccine," the Bureau noted.

The ongoing crisis in India has already had rollover effects. Oxygen shortages have contributed to India's staggering death toll, prompting authorities to ban the export of liquid and cylinder oxygen.

  • But many countries in the region — Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, among others — rely on Indian oxygen exports and have been experiencing huge surges in demand.
  • "Oxygen shortages have already been reported, and the Bureau’s data shows that Nepal needs more than 100 times as much oxygen as it needed in March," noted the Bureau.

What they're saying: “We could see the total collapse of health systems, especially in countries with very fragile systems," Robert Matiru, chair of the Covid-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, told the Bureau.

  • "We should have known India would happen after seeing what happened in Latin America. And now looking at Asia, we should know this will happen in some of the big cities in Africa," Leith Greenslade, coordinator of the Every Breath Counts Coalition, told the Bureau.
  • “Rapidly rising need for oxygen puts pressure on the health system, which it can’t meet, and we see patient deaths,” said Greenslade.
  • “And that will keep happening week after week, month after month, if the vaccine rollout is slow, because at this point, in many of these countries, it’s only increases in vaccine coverage that will bend the curve on transmission.”
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