Why Oxygen Is So Expensive
Narrator: Demand for oxygen in Peru has exceeded supply. With hospitals running out during the country’s punishing second COVID wave, families have to buy their own. A single cylinder can cost up to $400 on the black market. The lack of oxygen helps makes Peru the country with the world’s highest death rate per capita from COVID-19. Thousands have died in Lima in recent months, and this is where many of them end up – the vast Virgen de Lourdes cemetery.
That’s Lenin Froilan. He spent more than $6,000 on oxygen to try to help his mother before she died from COVID.
Lenin Froilan: Medicine and oxygen. But it was useless.
Narrator: How did this happen, and why is medical oxygen so expensive?
We met Lenin standing in line to get oxygen for his mother one day before she died. He had been waiting since 4 a.m.
Lenin Froilan: We have no choice but to be here like this. Why? Because we have to queue up for oxygen.
Narrator: This plant on the southern outskirts of the capital offers free medical oxygen to those with a prescription, but the wait is anywhere from 12 to 15 hours. People eat and sleep in line until it’s their turn. They’re only allowed to fill one 10-cubic-meter cylinder every 48 hours. That won’t do for Lenin’s family. A patient with severe COVID-19 needs up to three cylinders a day. His three sisters have COVID, too, so he’s had to spend thousands of dollars on additional cylinders wherever he can find them. Lenin sells furniture and earns about $650 a month, so he’s relied on the last of his savings.
Lenin Froilan: There is no more money. They’ve taken advantage of the healthcare system. They simply have taken advantage.
Narrator: So why don’t Peru’s hospitals have oxygen?
In most of North America and Europe, companies mass-produce medical oxygen and deliver it in liquid form by tanker. Liquid oxygen is more dense and kept in large vessels at very low temperatures. Hospitals then pipe it directly to the beds of patients. The pandemic has caused oxygen shortages in places like Brazil, Mexico, and India as hospitals struggle to keep up with demand. Prices skyrocketed in countries that lack health infrastructure and relied on oxygen cylinders, which are more expensive.
Bulk oxygen piped into hospitals costs as little as one-tenth as much as oxygen in cylinders. It’s like paying for bottled water instead of getting it from the tap. At peak times in April and May, Peru fell short of nearly 40,000 cylinders of oxygen every day. At one point, neighboring Chile sent liquid oxygen to help, but it did not fill the gap.
Overwhelmed hospitals in Lima ran out of beds in February. Patients lined up outside to get oxygen, but with thousands of severe cases a day, hospitals ran out.
Silva Arrieta: The moment came when the cylinders the hospital gave us ran out and the relatives had to buy their own.
Narrator: Families took it upon themselves to look after their loved ones and began shopping for cylinders. Homes started to look like hospitals with medical equipment lying around.
Marisol del Aguila Pinedo: If [the hospital] took her, they said they would have here in the hallway to wait for a bed.
Interviewer: How long does that cylinder last?
Marisol del Aguila Pinedo: How long does it last? Well, it lasts – it depends on her blood levels, because every time the saturation drops, you have to increase the dose.
Narrator: Marisol got sick caring for her parents at home, but she didn’t stop helping them.
Marisol del Aguila Pinedo: I had to wash my mom and dad’s clothes, take care of them, and feed them. I would care for my dad, and my sister would care for my mom. That’s how we were doing it.
Narrator: So how do people in Peru buy oxygen? Companies couldn’t produce enough oxygen as the second wave hit in February, so black-market operators like this man stepped in to meet demand.
Anonymous Man: So it the beginning, cylinders were between $1,400 and $1,600. I had people who bought five or six cylinders. I made anywhere from $6,500 to $9,500. To me, that’s a lot of money.
Narrator: Now, he exchanges empty cylinders for full ones and charges up to $400 for a full cylinder.
Anonymous Man: What I have been doing now is buying it in cities that are less affected or where there are oxygen plants that are not running out, and they give me a cheap price.
Narrator: This small factory in Lima has also raised prices, just not as high as the black market. A 10-cubic-meter cylinder that used to cost $16 to fill is now $70.
Steven Romero Quinde: It is frustrating not being able to help more. During the first wave, Oxiromero were able to be more helpful. In the second wave, as I said, factories who supplied us with oxygen simply said, “Oxiromero, we can’t supply you because we’re overwhelmed.”
Narrator: Oxiromero began making its own oxygen using a technique known as pressure swing adsorption to extract oxygen from the air. But that only allows them to fill about 20 tanks at a time.
Steven Romero Quinde: This is the most vital and important part of the plant, because this is where the air is separated into nitrogen and oxygen. It’s like the lung.
Narrator: Oxiromero would need to overhaul the plant to produce more oxygen, and that’s out of reach during the pandemic.
Steven Romero Quinde: Here, we can see the quality of the oxygen. We are trying to get it to a 95% purity level.
Narrator: At the Virgen de Lourdes cemetery, Lenin laid his mother to rest alongside hundreds of other victims of Peru’s second wave.
Lenin Froilan: Right now, I feel at peace, having buried my mother with the help of family members. Done without any luxuries, just with dirt, as you saw.
Narrator: Lenin says it’s hard to be hopeful with his sisters still fighting the virus.
Lenin Froilan: You live in shock now. You are trembling, and you worry that tomorrow, it’s going to be you. Then I’ll be the next patient, and the day after tomorrow, they’ll be burying me.