Egypt struggles with oxygen tank shortage amid second wave of COVID-19

Zeinab El-Gundy , Wednesday 6 Jan 2021

The country is facing a new crisis amid its fight against the coronavirus: a shortage in medical oxygen tanks

 oxygen cylinders
oxygen cylinders (Photo: Al-Ahram)

The Global Centre of Fatwas at Egypt’s Al-Azhar said on Monday that hoarding medical supplies, including oxygen cylinders, to make profits at a time of crisis is religiously prohibited.

“Truth, justice and honesty are among the pillars of Islam, which also prohibits cheating, deception and lying,” the centre said.

Citing verses from the Holy Quran that prohibit monopolies during crises, the centre said that any monopoly on medical or food supplies is a religious, economic and social crime because it causes harm to people.

Al-Azhar is considered the highest Islamic Sunni religious institution in Egypt and in the Muslim world, and this fatwa comes at a time when the country is facing a new crisis amid its fight against the coronavirus: a shortage in medical oxygen tanks.

Over the past two days, this crisis revealed itself when two incidents took place at public hospitals in Sharqiya and Gharbiya governorates, where six coronavirus patients reportedly died due to a lack of oxygen, according to videos and reports that went viral on social media.

In a statement on Sunday, the health ministry affirmed the availability of oxygen in sufficient quantities at all hospitals receiving coronavirus patients, including Al-Husayniah Central Hospital in Sharqiya governorate and Zefta General Hospital in Gharbiya governorate, where the six patients died.

The public prosecutor is currently investigating both incidents, which have caused a stir on TV channels and social media.

There have been reports that oxygen cylinders are either sold at exorbitant prices or are not available at all on the market.

According to Mohamed El-Garhy, the head of Sharkia-based charity January 25 Hospital’s board of trustees, the oxygen crisis started three weeks ago.

“When the numbers of coronavirus patients began to increase three weeks back, some families could not find places in ICUs in some areas and so resorted to home isolation, and so the demand increased for oxygen cylinders,” he told Ahram Online, adding that the crisis also includes shortages in cylinder regulators and other paraphernalia.

Egypt has so far recorded a total of 142,187 coronavirus cases, including 113,898 recoveries and 7,805 fatalities, with a dramatic rise in infections over the past few weeks.

According to officials including the minister of health, the real number of coronavirus cases in Egypt is higher than the official numbers, because many are opting for home treatment rather than going to hospital.

Experts believe that the peak of the second wave will hit the country in the upcoming two weeks.

El-Garhy says that the demand has increased for oxygen cylinders and consequently so has the price.

“The suppliers of oxygen cylinders did not merely double or triple the price of the cylinder, but made it reach EGP 4,000 even for re-filled cylinders,” he said, adding that also the price of re-filling cylinders has also increased, creating a black market.

“It now seems that demanding oxygen cylinders from suppliers is like demanding prohibited drugs,” El-Garhy said, recounting how a young man he knew from Sharkia governorate conducted deal to buy a cylinder from a supplier who had him meet him in downtown Alexandria.

Charity NGOs like January 25 Hospital have been working hard to collect donations to provide oxygen cylinders for patients.

According to an investigation by Ahram Online, the shortage in oxygen tanks in Egypt dates back months.

Online market OLX has dozens of ads offering medical oxygen cylinders dating back to October.

There are also ads posted by people looking to purchase cylinders, and a new item frequently appearing with a high price tag is also the medical oxygen generator.

“The 10-litre oxygen cylinder is the one available because there is huge shortage on the market; you can no longer find any other sizes,” one of the sellers on OLX said after being contacted by Ahram Online.

The seller, who was offering a 10-litre oxygen cylinder for EGP 1,600, said he did not know when other sizes would be available.

Aside from the problem of stockpiling, the few factories in the country’s governorates cannot keep up with the rising demand.

According to the Chemicals Industries Chambers at Egypt’s Federation of industries in 2016, there are only 30 authorised medical gas factories. At the same time, illegal workshops having been manufacturing cylinders that do not meet the necessary standards.

Only authorised medical gas factories are the official suppliers for hospitals.

Two weeks ago, Minister of Health Hala Zayed revealed that the average daily consumption of oxygen in hospitals reached half-a-million litres daily, and factories in Egypt are producing nearly 70,000 litres daily as reserves for the coming period.

The Ministry of Health has also announced that it is monitoring the quantity of oxygen in hospitals nationwide.

The same thing was announced on Tuesday by Prime Minister Mostafa Mabdouly, who stated that there are enough oxygen tanks in the country’s governorates.

Mohamed El-Garhy believes that the state can help solve the current crisis.

“The state can temporarily manage the oxygen depots and factories administratively through a committee that includes representatives from the ministries of health, supply and the interior,” he told Ahram Online.

He also suggested imposing official pricing on oxygen cylinders similar to how it is imposed on cigarettes.

“We need oxygen cylinders now more than cigarettes,” he said.

“Those breaking the orders of the government concerning oxygen cylinders must stand trial and be fined; this would end this black market that has suddenly appeared,” El-Garhy stated.

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