Oxygen, one of the most important weapons to sustain coronavirus patients, is in short supply and has become a powerful symbol of chaos in Peru. Desperate citizens have turned to the growing black market, with tanks announced for sale at exorbitant prices on social media and e-commerce sites.
One of the oxygen seekers was Carlos Rock Rojas, 41, whose 81-year-old mother developed a fever and difficulty breathing. He looked for all the oxygen for her, but in the end he failed. “My mother was abandoned,” he told CNN. “The demand for oxygen was too great.”
Rock, who lives in the Loreto area of the Amazon Basin, described people dying right next to him in a hospital, collapsing before his eyes. Shortly afterwards, his mother was dead.
Roque’s experience illustrates the chaos the pandemic has created in the region. Two doctors told him that his mother had coronavirus, although tests returned negative after her death and the cause of death was recorded as pneumonia. “I don’t know what to believe,” Roke told CNN, but it was clear to him that finding oxygen would help her live.
He said it was “incredible” that the country was not prepared for a pandemic. “They need to improve our health system,” he said. “They need to improve oxygen plants.”
The coastal city of Lambayek is one of the hotspots, and 30-year-old Marcela Puykon is battling the source of oxygen for the injured family member.
Puykon’s 60-year-old father is battling pneumonia after contracting a coronavirus and also has a pre-existing lung condition. Puykon and her six siblings decided to treat their father at home, but none of them were able to work due to ongoing blocking measures and the daily struggle to provide drugs and oxygen due to lack of income.
“I feel helpless, angry and furious. I feel like my hands are tied,” she told CNN. “My father is sick and we can’t afford something so important to him to survive.”
The government has promised to help
On Thursday, Peruvian President Martin Viscara acknowledged the public protest and announced urgent measures to increase production and access to oxygen for medical purposes and declared gas a strategic health resource.
“We provide the Ministry of Health with the resources to buy the necessary amount of oxygen at the national level for the treatment of patients established by our technicians,” Viscara told a news conference. “We provide 84 million soles ($ 24.5 million) to the Department of Health to buy the oxygen needed nationally.”
Vizcarra also recognized the problems with the distribution and shortage of the cylinders themselves. “The same decree also establishes the transfer of 11 million soles for the construction of oxygen networks and for the maintenance of oxygen plants in Lima and the regions,” he said.
Peru was one of the first countries in America to take strict preventive coronavirus measures, such as home stay orders, curfews and border closures.
However, the blocking measures failed to be adhered to. Many of the poor in Peru have no choice but to go out of their homes for work, food or financial transactions, leading to the accumulation of markets, public transport and outside banks.
More than 30% of households live in overcrowded conditions, said Christian Lopez Vargas, a Peruvian economist and assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and 72% work in the informal sector, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Information in Peru. going out every day to earn enough money to survive.
“[Peru] there are strengths, but also some weaknesses that we see in other countries in Latin America, ”said Marcos Espinal, director of infectious diseases and environmental determinants of health at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
These include underinvestment, with Peru historically spending less than 6% of GDP on public health recommended by PAHO, Espinal said, despite efforts to allocate more resources to the sector in recent years. The country spent 3.165% of GDP on public health in 2017, according to the World Bank.
Peru also has less than two hospital beds per 1,000 people, which is not enough, Espinal said, but it is not clear what caused the oxygen shortage problem. “It’s hard for me to give you that answer,” he said. “There may be several factors at the end of the day.”
Clearly, the lack of oxygen is crucial and is getting worse, said Javier Gallardo, who runs Oxígeno y Derivados, a Lima-based company that distributes oxygen treatment to patients at home.
“Demand from hospitals and health clinics has multiplied by four or five as coronavirus patients need large amounts of oxygen for treatment,” he said. The shortage affects gas cylinders and oxygen itself, Gallardo told CNN. “Unfortunately, we miss it,” he said, and the company is struggling to maintain supplies to patients with coronavirus, as well as those with other conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary fibrosis.
Despite the demands, Gallardo’s company has not raised its prices, he said, unlike black market sellers.
Gallardo says it’s a “mystery” where oxygen comes from on the black market, but he talks to customers who say the cylinders they sold for 1,200 soles ($ 353), which is what he charges, are now changing hands. for 5,000 soles ($ 1,470) each. “It’s outrageous,” he said, adding that severe or critical coronavirus patients can use one cylinder of oxygen every 6-8 hours or four a day.
“Oxygen demand is critical and since the beginning of the pandemic there was no plan to face this problem, we must take into account that the current demand is about 50% higher than normal,” Leonid Leka, CEO of NGOs This was reported to CNN by partners in Health Peru and a professor at Harvard Medical School.
Communities organize fundraising to buy oxygen
In response, communities across the country are organizing to try to supply oxygen.
In Iquitos, the capital of the Loreto region in the Amazon Basin, Father Miguel Fuertes, administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Iquitos, has launched a fundraising campaign to help those in need. “There were a lot of patients and there was no oxygen for them, the hospitals were collapsing and you could see desperate people running through the streets with oxygen tanks,” he said.
Fuertes told CNN that so far his fund has received 2 million soles ($ 588,544) and he has managed to buy three oxygen plants with the money, but there is still a shortage in the area.
Father Jose Manuel Zamora Romero, the parish priest of Lambayeque in northern Peru, has also launched a campaign called #ResisteLambayeque to provide food for those in need and sources of oxygen tanks and medicines for those infected with the virus.
“Hospitals do not have the capacity to treat these patients. There is no oxygen and many of them die from lack of it,” Zamora told CNN. “So far we’ve bought eight oxygen tanks, they’re so expensive. None of them cost less than 4,000 soles ($ 1,175).”
Zamora’s campaign received support from celebrities such as national football team star Paolo Guerrero, and he donated one of Puykon’s oxygen tanks to help her 60-year-old father receive treatment at home, the two told CNN.
But the other problem is paying for the charges, that is, whether oxygen is available at all. “We have to fill the tank every day and nowadays due to the blockage we can’t work and secure the costs,” said Puikon, who has to pay 170 soles ($ 50) for refueling. “Oxygen is sold almost everywhere and prices continue to rise.”
Gallardo, of the oxygen distribution company, said the main problem was no more than medical oxygen, but a shortage of the cylinders themselves. People usually send empty cylinders to fill immediately, but many patients stick to them as a precaution given the current shortage, he said. “We need to move step by step to safer and more efficient oxygen supply systems,” Gallardo said.
But people like Puykon need help right now with the donation of an oxygen tank. “Every day we call one place, another and try to find the money,” she said. “This situation is impossible.”