COVID-19 Shines Spotlight on Oxygen Supply Challenges In Low and Middle-Income Countries

COVID-19 Shines Spotlight on Oxygen Supply Challenges In Low and Middle-Income Countries

by Bethany Holland, Humanitarian Programs Manager

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, global healthcare systems remain overwhelmed. The impact on fragile health systems in less economically developed nations has been even greater, and they are being left even further behind.

This global pandemic has strained not only the availability of airfreight and the supply chain for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), but also other medical supply chains, including access to basic medications, critical medical supplies, and oxygen.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the globe, with spikes across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, we are reminded there is no known cure — and when a vaccine is created, the distribution to developing countries will be difficult.

Life-saving treatments are already available, but those who contract the virus in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often don’t have access to these measures.

News outlets around the world continue to share stories highlighting the strain on health systems due to shortages of PPE, airway equipment, and bed-space in medical facilities. Slowly but surely, these problems are being addressed.

But, we know that increasing the number of ventilators, for example, does not solve the treatment gap in overwhelmed LMICs when a shortage of medical oxygen exists.

In terms of critical medical supplies and humanitarian aid, oxygen often gets overlooked.

In the U.S. and countries throughout Europe, liquid oxygen is delivered and stored on medical facilities’ premises to be piped to a patient’s room.

In countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where healthcare systems rely on oxygen cylinders for delivering a patient’s source of medical oxygen, this critical shortage is especially debilitating. These cylinders must be refilled by industrial gas companies and delivered to hospitals, leaving the cost of this critical supply in the hands of commercial companies.

The World Bank has noted that one of the biggest challenges to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the supply of available medical oxygen, while also reducing the cost and, therefore, making this critical supply accessible to patients who need it most.

Current estimates show that a COVID-19 patient hospitalized for three weeks requires 60 large oxygen cylinders throughout their treatment, which can cost a patient thousands of dollars, depending on the commercial company servicing a hospital.

In Guinea, for example, this cost could be $7,000 for oxygen treatments. In some hospitals, patients are responsible for the expenses incurred while hospitalized.

An inability to finance a hospital stay, alongside the necessary oxygen treatments, can be fatal. In many countries, healthcare providers must decide which patient receives oxygen and who must go without. Some hospitals in developing countries are turning away patients with COVID-19 symptoms or with no definitive positive test results because of the lack of oxygen.

Our partners are dedicating their responses to alleviate the ongoing inequity in available COVID-19 treatments. Partners in Health, Direct Relief, and Last Mile Health are working to bolster health facilities through donating equipment such as oxygen concentrators, oxygen compressors, and pulse oximeters.

Through the support of our partners at DHL Express, Flexport, and Qatar Airways, Airlink has coordinated the movement of nearly 2,500 pieces of critical equipment and medicines for respiratory therapies and treatment. The humanitarian sector continues to overcome obstacles in cargo movement to deliver lifesaving supplies to communities around the world.

Recently, Airlink has joined the Every Breath Counts Coalition to offer our partnership and services to community based coalition actors in need of cargo support. These partnerships and networks are not only vital, but can be the difference between life and death for COVID-19 patients.

Photo credit: Twang Photography

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