LIMA – Desperate family members are once again seeking oxygen tank refills for loved ones battling COVID-19 in Peru, where people have been forced to sleep out in the elements in hopes of acquiring that scarce commodity.
In recent days, hundreds of empty green tanks have been lined up outside a medical oxygen distributor in Callao, a port city adjoining Peru’s capital, one of the regions of the country that will be placed under a new lockdown on Jan. 31.
The dramatic scene is unfolding just months after the first wave of the virus revealed severe shortages of oxygen, a vital element in the treatment of critically ill coronavirus patients.
Most of the tanks have the capacity to hold 10 cubic meters, although people are now forced to spend sleepless nights on the street for the chance to fill just half of a container at an exorbitant cost of 100 soles (around $27).
One of those individuals, Maria Ana Carrion Robles, and her cousin arrived at that establishment after a two-hour journey only to find a line of 180 oxygen tanks.
With an average of 120 tanks being refilled daily, she knew instantly that she faced a long wait.
There was a “huge line,” she told EFE, so “tomorrow we’re hoping that someone will cover us during the day so we can spend another night here.”
The vast majority of the tank refills are for patients who are receiving treatment at home due to widespread mistrust of the conditions at overwhelmed hospitals in the Lima region.
“Hospitals are more contaminated. They’re in a state of collapse, and there’s no oxygen,” Carrion said.
A 21-year-old young man nicknamed Junior made similar remarks to EFE, saying he is convinced his sick uncle is “better off at home.”
“The hospitals are full at the moment,” he said, adding that if his relative were admitted somewhere, he would have to sit upright in a chair due to a complete lack of beds.
Another man waiting in line, Rene Luque, a resident of the Lima district of Ancon, has been taking turns waiting in line with other family members in hopes of obtaining the daily requirement of five cubic meters of oxygen for a sick relative, who is now at home in “very serious” condition.
“Because of our authorities’ neglect, I have to stay here overnight every day,” the man told EFE while sitting on a plastic chair set up next to his two empty tanks.
He borrowed one of them from friends and acquired the other for 2,500 soles, an amount three times as high as Peru’s minimum monthly wage of 930 soles.
Other people unable or unwilling to purchase the oxygen tanks through normal channels are instead renting them at a cost of 100 soles a day or seeking out deals on the black market.
Carrion, for example, said a “contact” offered to sell her a full 10-cubic-meter oxygen tank for 1,500 soles, but she would have had to have waited until Friday and that was “very late.”
EFE, meanwhile, spoke to the owner of the oxygen distribution company in Callao, Luis Barsallo, affectionately known as the Angel del Oxigeno (Oxygen Angel), about people’s desperate hunt for that vital commodity.
He said some unscrupulous individuals had passed themselves off as relatives of COVID-19 patients to refill oxygen tanks and then turn around and sell them at a higher price.
“There are a lot of people who hire women to come with false information, and later the beneficiaries sell (the tanks) on the black market,” Barsallo said, while also noting that some local residents are making money by selling places in line.
To prevent mafias from forming and ensure greater control over the areas surrounding the distribution center, the company has enlisted the support of regional police.
The renewed hunt for oxygen comes as Peru, which has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates per 1 million people, faces the initial stage of the second wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections.
According to the nation’s Ombud’s Office, Peru will need to produce just over 1 million cubic meters of oxygen per day even in a best-case scenario and more than 3 million cmd if the situation proves to be more dramatic. At present, the South American country only is producing 800 cmd.
The abrupt increase in confirmed coronavirus cases in recent weeks has brought the total since the start of the pandemic to more than 1.1 million and caused the death toll from COVID-19 to rise to over 40,000. It also has led to hospitals becoming overwhelmed with patients and triggered long waiting lists for beds in intensive-care units.
According to the Health Ministry, only one and four ICU beds were available, respectively, in the hospital networks of Callao and Lima on Monday. Nationwide, just 97 of the more than 1,900 ICU beds installed nationwide are available.
Amid that scenario, the government said on Tuesday that 10 regions of Peru, including Lima, will be placed under a strict two-week lockdown starting Jan. 31 even as the country awaits the supposedly imminent arrival of the first doses of a vaccine produced by Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm.