Africa’s Covid patients ‘dying from lack of oxygen’


Many African countries are facing a “growing crisis” of severe oxygen shortages which is leading to preventable deaths, international health agencies have warned.

A doctor in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland told the BBC that between five and 10 of his Covid patients were dying because of a lack of oxygen almost every day.

“These would all be preventable deaths if we had adequate oxygen,” said Dr Jama Abdi Mahamud at the government-run Gardo General Hospital.
There are no official figures available showing a rise in preventable deaths, but many low-income countries are struggling to access oxygen supplies amid surging coronavirus cases, and limited or no access to coronavirus vaccines.


Every Breath Counts, a coalition of global health campaigners, say 18 low-income countries are currently dealing with oxygen shortages or are at risk of facing the crisis, with most of those being in Africa.

“The G20 Global Health Summit leaders didn’t mention oxygen at their meeting in May, but the G7 has now signalled there will be financial support for oxygen,” said Leith Greenslade, co-ordinator of the coalition.

Jessica Winn, head of pneumonia support hub for Save the Children, said the need for oxygen in these countries was high and urgent.

“Now that a third wave of the pandemic has arrived in Africa, populations are again at risk. Since 1 June 2021, the oxygen needed to treat Covid-19 patients in Zambia has increased five-fold to 50,000 cubic meters, and three-fold to 12,000 cubic meters in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Demand for oxygen to treat Covid-19 patients is steeply rising in Zimbabwe.”

A study published in the Lancet last month suggested more than half of the Covid patients that died in 64 hospitals in 10 African countries were not given oxygen.

‘No oxygen plants’

Dr Mahamud said that during the second wave in Somalia up to 25 people were dying each day in his hospital because of a lack of oxygen: “It is really stressful to work in this condition.”

According to World Health Organization (WHO), of the 14,823 confirmed coronavirus cases in Somalia as of 16 June, 775 people have died.

Health professionals say the real figure could be many times higher because there is no proper reporting mechanism, and many deaths occur in villages.

“There are around 750 hospitals and primary health centres across Somalia which urgently need more than 1,400 oxygen concentrators, but they have received less than 300,” said Dr Joseph Serike, senior health technical specialist with the Save the Children in the capital, Mogadishu.