The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has reached every country in the world, stretching the global health system to its limits. The coronavirus has caused half of the world's population to be placed in strict confinement for months, and restrictive measures and new habits such as masks, social distance and hand-washing have been imposed.
But, unfortunately, it has been the countries with the least resources that are suffering the ravages of the coronavirus much more acutely. Africa and Latin America are facing an "oxygen crisis", i.e. a shortage of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients, which has led to unnecessary deaths.
According to the AP, it takes about 12 weeks to set up a hospital oxygen plant and even less time to convert industrial oxygen manufacturing systems to a medical-grade network. However, in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as in less populated countries, decisions to fully address supply shortages only began to be made last month after hospitals were overwhelmed and patients began dying.
Access to oxygen is vital to saving lives. Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explained that the gap in the availability of medical oxygen, "is one of the issues that determines equality in health, I think, in our time," and noted that he survived the coronavirus because of the oxygen he received.
According to data provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in five patients with COVID-19 will require oxygen. In severe cases, this rises to three out of five. The organisation says it does not have country-specific data, but adds that some hospitals have seen oxygen demand increase by five to seven times normal levels due to the influx of patients with severe and critical illnesses.
PATH, a global non-profit organisation helping governments respond to the pandemic, has estimated that about 1.5 million cylinders of oxygen are needed every day in low- and middle-income countries to cope with the additional demand generated by the pandemic.
John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said medical oxygen is a "huge critical need" across the continent of 1.3 billion people and is one of the main reasons why COVID-19 patients are more likely to die there during the surges.
In the Americas, the BBC reports that Brazil has experienced one of the most dramatic increases in oxygen demand in the world since November, requiring approximately 340,000 additional cylinders a day to treat COVID cases.
One of the possible short-term solutions may be the use of oxygen concentrators, a machine that filters air and converts it into medical-grade oxygen. The WHO has distributed some 16,000 globally during the pandemic, but warned that "they are not enough for critically ill patients who will need more oxygen flow".
The lack of foresight of many governments and the shortage of oxygen has led to an increase in deaths from coronaviruses, especially in Africa and Latin America. This scenario is compounded by vaccine shortages and unequal distribution of vaccines, which will continue to increase inequality between countries.