Why Oxygen Is So Expensive

Friday, June 4, 2021

/ by mansuralisaha

 The News Cover: Demand for oxygen in Peru has exceeded supply. With hospitals running out during the country's punishing second COVID wave, families have to buy their own. A single-cylinder can cost up to $400 on the black market. The lack of oxygen helps makes Peru the country with the world's highest death rate per capita from COVID-19. Thousands have died in Lima in recent months, and this is where many of them end up — the vast Virgen de Lourdes cemetery. That's Lenin Froilan. He spent more than $6,000 on oxygen to try to help his mother before she died from COVID. How did this happen, and why is medical oxygen so expensive? We met Lenin standing in line to get oxygen for his mother one day before she died. He had been waiting since 4 a.m. This plant on the southern outskirts of the capital offers free medical oxygen to those with a prescription, but the wait is anywhere from 12 to 15 hours. 

People eat and sleep in line until it's their turn. They're only allowed to fill one 10-cubic-meter cylinder every 48 hours. That won't do for Lenin's family. A patient with severe COVID-19 needs up to three cylinders a day. His three sisters have COVID, too, so he's had to spend thousands of dollars on additional cylinders wherever he can find them. Lenin sells furniture and earns about $650 a month, so he's relied on the last of his savings. So why don't Peru's hospitals have oxygen? In most of North America and Europe, companies mass-produce medical oxygen and deliver it in liquid form by tanker. Liquid oxygen is more dense and kept in large vessels at very low temperatures. Hospitals then pipe it directly to the beds of patients. The pandemic has caused oxygen shortages in places like Brazil, Mexico, and India as hospitals struggle to keep up with demand. Prices skyrocketed in countries that lack health infrastructure and relied on oxygen cylinders, which are more expensive. 

Bulk oxygen piped into hospitals costs as little as one-tenth as much as oxygen in cylinders. It's like paying for bottled water instead of getting it from the tap. At peak times in April and May, Peru fell short of nearly 40,000 cylinders of oxygen every day. At one point, neighboring Chile sent liquid oxygen to help, but it did not fill the gap. Overwhelmed hospitals in Lima ran out of beds in February. Patients lined up outside to get oxygen, but with thousands of severe cases a day, hospitals ran out. Families took it upon themselves to look after their loved ones and began shopping for cylinders. Homes started to look like hospitals with medical equipment lying around. Marisol got sick caring for her parents at home, but she didn't stop helping them. So how do people in Peru buy oxygen? Companies couldn't produce enough oxygen as the second wave hit in February, so black market operators like this man stepped in to meet demand.

 Now he exchanges empty cylinders for full ones and charges up to $400 for a full cylinder. This small factory in Lima has also raised prices, just not as high as the black market. A 10-cubic-meter cylinder that used to cost $16 to fill is now $70. Oxiromero began making its own oxygen using a technique known as pressure swing adsorption to extract oxygen from the air. But that only allows them to fill about 20 tanks at a time. Oxiromero would need to overhaul the plant to produce more oxygen, and that's out of reach during the pandemic. At the Virgen de Lourdes cemetery, Lenin laid his mother to rest alongside hundreds of other victims of Peru's second wave. Lenin says it's hard to be hopeful with his sisters still fighting the virus.

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