BusinessDay

‘Expensive oxygen’ now required to survive COVID-19 but Nigerians can’t afford it

Humans have breathed oxygen freely since creation, and this vital part of human existence, possibly even the most important, has often been taken for granted. All one has to do is breathe and oxygen is freely supplied.

As it comes at a cost, food has been a major priority for human survival but this priority is shifting to oxygen, which has always been considered free but increasingly needing to be paid for amid a second wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With new strains of the virus in the second (deadlier) wave of the pandemic, oxygen is now a premium and critical component required to assist COVID-19 patients to stay alive.

“We have to struggle to get places for people requiring oxygen or for ventilation, it is really becoming tight,” said Sanni Aliyu, national coordinator, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19.

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is currently battling with a recession, rising poverty levels and high unemployment rate and this just means that the cost of treating a COVID-19 patient is way out of the reach of the average Nigerian, where 82 million live on less than a $1 day.

“Oxygen is now the new gold and only the wealthy and influential can afford it. But the average Nigerian cannot. Most hospitals don’t have oxygen and the few that do are managing it by giving it to those that can pay for it,” Okechukwu Ekemezie, a Lagos-based medical doctor, said.

On Tuesday, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said at a press conference on COVID-19 update that over the last few weeks, the demand for oxygen had risen from 70 six-litre cylinders per day to 350 six-litre cylinders in Yaba Mainland Hospital.

He projected that the 350 six-litre cylinders would more than double to 750 six-cylinders, before the end of January 2021.

A check by BusinessDay shows that oxygen costs about N150,000 per cylinder, which is roughly five times more than the minimum wage (N30,000) of an average Nigerian. In critical situations, a COVID-19 patient may use up six cylinders per day.

Typically, food, shelter and clothing are considered necessities of life but for Nigerians, food is top priority. According to 2019 consumption data by National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), 56.65% of total household expenditure was spent on food with the balance of about 43.35% spent on non-food items in 2019.

“Low income class and the lower middle income cannot independently fund oxygen-related expenses,” said Damilola Adewale, a Lagos-based economic analyst. They can only do this with external support. However, most COVID-19 patients are in the upper middle-income group and upper income group. These classes can conveniently fund these purchases given their financial capacity.”

Nevertheless, it is yet to be seen, what happens if the pandemic is not swiftly nipped in the bud, and spreads through the poorer population. Unfortunately, no insurance policy covers COVID-19 treatment.

In order not to substitute food for oxygen, doctors advise that people abide by the safety protocols, which are to wear a mask, wash hands and maintain physical distance of six feet.

Globally, there is an oxygen supply crisis. The demand for oxygen outweighs supply. Meanwhile, it is estimated that on average a COVID-19 patient uses 15 litres per minute, three times a non-COVID-19 patient’s five litres per minute.

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.