LMIC government leadership critical to tackling COVID-19 oxygen shortages

LMIC government leadership critical to tackling COVID-19 oxygen shortages

Credit: Reuters/Sebastian Casdaneda

28 March 2021

The Every Breath Counts Coalition has released an open letter calling on Health and Finance Ministers in the countries with COVID-19 oxygen shortages to accelerate investments to end the unnecessary suffering and deaths that are being caused by lack of oxygen.

For more than 12 months now, there have been heartbreaking stories of overwhelmed health facilities running out of oxygen across Latin America, Asia and Africa with families of patients waiting for days and paying exorbitant prices for scarce oxygen supplies while their loved ones suffer.

Thalita Rocha’s mother-in-law suffocated to death in Brazil after the hospital ran out of oxygen,  Mureed Ali’s mother died in Pakistan as the hospital waited for the delivery of more oxygen cylinders, and Paul Msoma died in a hospital in Malawi that had oxygen but no flowmeters. 

These and many, many more personal tragedies add up to a global oxygen crisis that is targeting our most vulnerable.

With clinical care options for COVID-19 patients are very limited, oxygen and steroids, such as dexamethasone, are the only proven lifesaving treatments for seriously ill patients. And with the oxygen needs of COVID-19 patients 10 to 20 times higher than for other patients, there has been an exponential increase in the demand for oxygen in most countries over the past year. 

The daily oxygen need across all low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is currently estimated at 11,800,000 cubic meters per day, or 1,700,000 large cylinders by the COVID-19 Oxygen Needs Tracker.

To help LMICs respond to the oxygen crisis, the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) announced an Oxygen Emergency Response on 25 February 2021 with an immediate injection of $US20 million from Unitaid and the Wellcome Trust, and a call for $US90 million to support the 20 worst-affected countries as part of a 12-month multi-billion response to the crisis.

To mobilize these additional resources the Every Breath Counts Coalition is calling on LMIC governments to increase national spending on medical oxygen. The coalition is urging governments to work with the international development banks and agencies – the World Bank, the Global Fund, Unitaid, WHO and UNICEF – donor governments, NGOs and the medical gas and device industries to ensure that any unspent COVID-19 relief funds and future funds made available by the ACT-A Oxygen Emergency Response are used to close the gaps in oxygen access.

While LMIC populations wait for COVID-19 vaccines to reach full coverage, the coming months will bring more infections and a continued need for more oxygen to reduce fatality rates. 

The Every Breath Counts Coalition will continue to call for more financing and technical assistance for LMIC governments and stands ready to support the government-industry-development agency partnerships that are going to be critical to ensuring that not one more patient dies for lack of oxygen during the pandemic.