With the second highest number of virus cases in Asia overwhelming its health system, Pakistan is facing a new crisis: a shortage of oxygen cylinders.
One of the nation’s largest providers of medical oxygen has increased its supply four times over to 10,000 cylinders since Covid-19 cases began to rise in April. Now almost its entire supply is in use, Alamgir Welfare Trust spokesman Shakeel Dehlvi said.
The Indus Hospital, part of a major chain of private hospitals treating virus patients in Pakistan, decided against providing oxygen to patients under medical care in their own homes after finding a shortage of cylinders, according to its chief executive officer Abdul Bari Khan.
“The amount of oxygen being utilized in this problem is unprecedented — there is a shortfall even without anticipating the demand,” Saad Khalid Niaz, a gastroenterologist at the private Patel Hospital in Karachi and a member of several medical associations in Pakistan, said over the phone. “I am praying and hoping that we are wrong and Imran Khan is right but so far he has not been.”
Like many countries across the world, including neighboring India, Pakistan has seen infections soar after Prime Minister Imran Khan lifted its lockdown as its economy reeled. Doctors had warned about hospitals filling up even as Khan’s administration claimed there were enough beds. In late June the prime minister told parliament the country’s health system could handle its pandemic if basic precautions were taken.
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Khan’s comments contradict the claims of a senior adviser to his government. Atta ur Rahman, chairman of a government task force on science and technology, has said actual infections in South Asia, including Pakistan, will likely be two to three times the government’s stated numbers.
The double-barrel impact of the virus cutting a swathe through the country when the nation is looking at its first economic contraction in over six decades, is likely to hit Khan’s already waning popularity and tenuous grip on power.
Faisal Sultan, the premier’s point person for Covid-19 strategy, blamed hoarding for the shortfall of medical oxygen and added the pressure on the hospitals was easing as the number of new infections appeared to be flattening out.
“If there is an intermediary supply side shortage, that is possible,” said Sultan, who is an infectious disease experts. “When there is a run, there is hoarding and artificial shortage because of individual behaviors.”
The government expects cases to rise by five times to peak at 1.2 million cases by the end of July or early August from about 240,848 cases as of Thursday evening, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
They had earlier projected the virus to peak in June, based on the observation that most nations had reached their peak five months after the first reported infections, according to state health minister Zafar Mirza who previously worked at World Health Organization.
The nation has seen 4,983 deaths — more than India or Bangladesh per million cases. South Asia is one of the latest hot spots for the virus globally.
Despite Khan’s assurances, Pakistan has seen its health care system stretched, with patients put on waiting lists as the largest hospitals run out of space.
When several members of Salman Sufi’s family fell sick with the virus and found it difficult to find an oxygen cylinder in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, he decided to take matters into his own hands. His organization, the Salman Sufi Foundation, which usually works on women’s empowerment and social justice, made access to oxygen his newest initiative. It now connects patients with oxygen suppliers.
They were flooded with hundreds of requests as soon as they started out in June.
“Its becoming so hard. Many people are hoarding and overcharging two or three times the prices,” Sufi said over the phone. “We are not bothered about the price but getting oxygen to people who need it.”
The government opened up most of its economy after a two-month lockdown to balance rising cases against economic misery. Khan has urged the nation to remain calm and asked the masses to take responsibility for their own health.
But that’s easier said than done in a poor and densely packed country.
“Physical distance is absolutely not happening,” Saeed Qureshi, the vice chancellor of the country’s largest medical college, Dow University of Health Sciences said at a webinar recently. “I see only a few people wearing masks on my way to the hospital.”
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Last month science and technology minister Fawad Chaudhry told reporters that nearly 100 lawmakers, close to a third of the parliament, had contracted the virus. Even government ministers haven’t been following the advice on wearing masks. The health minister Mirza himself tested positive for the virus this week, as has Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Both men have been spotted without masks at various public events over the past two months.
When Patel Hospital in Karachi started its coronavirus ward recently, it was full within two weeks, according to Niaz. Another major Covid care center in the city, Ziauddin Hospital, which gradually scaled up to about 100 beds from 20, saw the additional capacity filled within a few days, spokesman Amir Shahzad said. South City Hospital, the preferred destination for the rich in the business hub, added a dozen new beds. They were full in a few hours, said Niaz. The hospital could not be reached for a comment.
Doctors said the government’s efforts to get people to take precuations against contracting the virus are in vain if political leaders don’t wear masks and lead by example.
“Front line is the community, they need to observe safety protocols,” Indus Hospitals’ Khan said last week. “Health care is not the first line but last line of defense, its already cracking.”