Myanmar Suffering From Severe Shortage of Medical Oxygen as COVID-19 Cases Spike

By The Irrawaddy 12 July 2021

Myanmar is suffering from a severe shortage of medical oxygen, just as the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the country, increasing fears that Myanmar is unprepared to cope with the sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

On Sunday – July 11 – Myanmar reported 82 fatalities – the highest daily death toll since the military’s Feb. 1 coup – and 3,461 new COVID-19 cases, after 10,114 swab tests were carried out, according to the junta-controlled Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS).

Many people believe those figures underestimate both the number of deaths and new coronavirus infections, with three COVID-19 variants, including the more transmissible Delta variant, circulating nationwide and affecting both the elderly and young, as well as those with underlying medical conditions.

Shortages of medical oxygen have been reported in the regions and townships most affected by COVID-19, including the capital Naypyitaw, Yangon, Mandalay, Bago, and Sagaing region’s Tamu and Kalay townships, with patients dying as they did not receive oxygen in time.

Ko Htwar Gyi, a charity worker from Mandalay, said some people in Mandalay Hospital have died due to the lack of medical oxygen.

“Many people have died from not having access to oxygen. Yesterday, 23 people died. We also buried nine bodies this morning. We are burying about 10-11 bodies every day. Some people are also dying at home from the lack of oxygen,” he said.

Kalay is also suffering from an acute shortage of medical oxygen as the town is no longer able to buy it from Yangon or Mandalay, while a new factory set up in Kalay cannot produce enough oxygen to meet demand.

Ko Myo is a Kalay volunteer who has been sourcing oxygen cylinders. “We searched for oxygen tanks today (July 10), but we could not get any,” he said on Saturday.

With deaths increasing at an alarming speed, social workers and charity groups leading the response to the pandemic in Kalay say that at least 600 people are believed to have died from coronavirus in the town since last month.

“Oxygen is the key to saving lives. There are people who have died because they were struggling to breathe and no oxygen was available. When the patients have breathing problems, they need help from oxygen concentrators,” added Ko Myo.

The shortage of medical oxygen has resulted in huge price increases for oxygen cylinders being sold on the private market.

An oxygen cylinder which can store 40 liters used to cost around 230,000 kyats (US$140). Now, the price has gone up to 350,000 kyats (US$212). 15-liter oxygen cylinders have also increased in price from 130,000 kyats to 250,000 kyats (US$79-151), while a 10-liter cylinder is now 200,000 kyats (US$121). But even those able to pay those prices have been unable to source oxygen, said Ko Myo.

“Oxygen is really important for us, I recovered from the virus because I was given oxygen. We had to buy it. If we can get oxygen, medicine and food, we will be ok,” said Ko Soe Myint, a recovering COVID-19 patient from Mawlamyine, the Mon State capital.

Ko Htwar Gyi said that during the COVID-19 waves experienced under the ousted civilian National League for Democracy government in 2020, emergency oxygen supplies were rarely needed.

“Now the COVID-19 patients in Mandalay are suffering from oxygen shortages with everybody needing it. The factories cannot produce enough. Almost the whole town is refilling the oxygen tanks and now the oxygen has run out,” added Ko Myo.

Mandalay residents have been queuing outside oxygen-producing factories for hours to buy private supplies. But on Saturday, the junta’s administrative council in Mandalay Region held a meeting with the owners of factories producing medical oxygen. The owners were reportedly told to stop selling oxygen cylinders and refilling services on the private market and instead told to sell only to hospitals, clinics and quarantine centers controlled by the MOHS, according to posts shared on social media.

The factories were also told to increase oxygen production. However, the owners highlighted the need for regular electricity supplies in Mandalay, where there are around seven factories producing medical oxygen, said a participant in the meeting.

There have also been reports of the military regime raiding oxygen-producing factories in Yangon and claiming the oxygen for themselves.

At a press conference on Monday, junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that oxygen factories were told last week that oxygen cannot be sold to individuals and must be supplied to regime-controlled hospitals, clinics and quarantine centers. Any individual seeking to refill empty oxygen cylinders will need a letter of permission from health officials.

Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun denied the reports that the military has been raiding oxygen-producing factories in Yangon.

U Myint, who has been donating oxygen tanks in Yangon’s Thingangyun Township said that, since July 3, they have been unable to refill oxygen cylinders at the oxygen plants in Yangon, so they just leave the empty tanks at the factories.

“We don’t know when we will get it. We leave the tanks at the factory and wait. Many social relief organizations are also not getting oxygen. They have been sharing the existing oxygen tanks with the [COVID-19] patients and now they have none left,” said U Myint.

The Irrawaddy tried to contact the oxygen-producing factories in the industrial zones of Yangon’s South Dagon, South Okkalapa and Shwepyithar townships. But all were unavailable for comment.

“There are too many people calling and asking for oxygen. The factories have turned off their phones,” U Myint said.

In rural and remote areas, people have been trying to obtain oxygen in other ways.

“They use pumps used for inflating bicycle tires, connect it to the ventilator and pump the air. Even if the air is not clean, it is an emergency way of saving lives,” said U Myint, who was told by villagers how they are using the bicycle pumps to try and save their sick people.

The MOHS has not commented on how it will solve the medical oxygen shortage, saying only on Sunday that people should not buy oxygen tanks unnecessarily as that will lead to bad consequences.

As of last week, nearly 90 percent of the country has been affected by the third wave of coronavirus, with 296 townships out of 330 nationwide reporting COVID-19 cases since May.

On Monday, the junta imposed stay-at-home orders for 18 more townships: six in Bago Region and 12 in Yangon. A total of 63 townships, in Naypyitaw, Sagaing, Bago, Yangon, Mandalay, Magwe, Ayeyarwady Regions and Chin, Shan and Mon States, have been placed under lockdown since last month.

Medical doctors participating in the civil disobedience movement against military rule told The Irrawaddy that patients are not even getting basic healthcare under the military regime.

One striking doctor said that patients who could not afford to go to the hospitals and clinics are treating themselves at home, with some severely ill.

“After the coup, people are aware of the risk of gathering together. But crowds still assembled [to demonstrate defiance against the junta]. Then, they were detained and sent to prisons. Inside the prisons, it is hard to contain diseases. COVID-19, which is a rapidly transmissible virus, can spread much more quickly in such crowded and unhygienic conditions,” said the doctor.

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