Uganda Short On Oxygen By Half amid COVID-19 Surge

17 JUNE 2021

The Monitor (Kampala)

By Monitor Team

Private manufacturers of oxygen in Uganda can only make up to 27.7 million litres of oxygen per day, according to our computations, slightly less than half of the current demand, explaining chronic shortages of the life-saving gas for Covid-19 patients.

A Daily Monitor mini-survey shows that Tembo Steel, the biggest producer of oxygen in the country, makes up to 18 million litres of oxygen at their Lugazi and Iganga oxygen plants a day.

The other producers are Oxygas, which manufactures 4.8 million litres per day; Uganda Oxygen Limited, which makes 2.4 million litres a day; and, Roofings, which produces up to 2.5 million litres every 24 hours. These total 27.7 million litres.

Shortage of oxygen has been cited by hospitals as a major reason for the less-than-satisfactory services to critically-ill Covid patients, many of who die due to inadequate oxygen.

Officials said a Covid patient takes anywhere between 20 to 70 litres of oxygen per day, depending on whether the condition is mild, severe or critical, giving an average oxygen consumption of 45 litres per patient.

When computed, it means the daily oxygen demand by the 950 Covid patients that the government says are in admission countrywide, grosses 62 million litres against roughly 28 million oxygen production by private suppliers, leaving about 34 million litres deficit.

Our calculations exclude the volume of oxygen made at Mulago National Referral Hospital plant and other regional referral hospitals, some of whose oxygen output has been stymied by broken equipment.

Mulago produces 2,999 litres of oxygen per hour or 4.3 million litres per day, according to its executive director, Dr Baterana Byarugaba.

A Ministry of Health source said each Regional Referral Hospital (RRH), if operating at full capacity, can make 15,000 litres of oxygen per hour or 360,000 litres per day, translating to 5 million litres of oxygen for the 14 regional referral hospitals combined.

This means oxygen plants in public health facilities generate around 9.3 million litres of oxygen per day, leaving a deficit of 24.5 million litres.

President Museveni had said he imposed the first lockdown in March last year to enable the country prepare for the worst scenario of the pandemic which at the time appeared to spare Uganda while battering more developed countries. It remains unclear why the government did not prioritise boosting oxygen production capacity after learning from other jurisdictions that the gas was essential for the survival of critically-ill Covid patients.

Mr Rajesh Kumar, the Oxygas Limited executive director, admitted that although they are producing oxygen 24 hours a day, they are still failing to meet the demand.

"During the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic, we could meet 100 per cent of supply demand. But during this second wave, we are failing to meet the demand of many hospitals. So many hospitals are now treating Covid-19," he said.

Mr Kumar said facilities far away such as St Mary's Lacor Hospital in Gulu and Soroti Regional Referral Hospital in eastern Uganda are obtaining oxygen refill at their plant in Nakawa, Kampala.

Mr Stuart Mwesigwa, the business development manager and spokesperson for Roofings Group, said: "We refill oxygen cylinders for government hospitals and non-profit organisations at no cost. For private hospitals, we charge Shs42, 000."

Relatedly, Tembo Steels said it is donating the life-saving gas to government hospitals.

"We are producing 18,000 cubic metres per day, which can fill up to 400 cylinders... We have decided to come in as a national concern to donate this oxygen instead of [witnessing] people dying," said Mr Sanjay Asthi, the firm's chairman.

Dr Denis Kimalyo, the executive director of Uganda National Association of Private Hospitals (UNAPH), said some of the private hospitals are already facing shortage of oxygen. However, there are plans to liaise with suppliers to increase demand.

The increased demand of oxygen has also created a shortage for other non-Covid patients according to Dr Kimalyo. He added that the prices of oxygen have also gone up.

"We have run short of oxygen; supply is so low I think every hospital is in shortage. Covid cases have created high demand even others that are not handling Covid have in the process also run short of oxygen for the other patients. The suppliers have also promised to increase supply but at the moment, we are still stuck in shortage of oxygen," Dr Kimalyo said.

Officials at Victory Hospital in Kampala said they are facing shortage and currently not admitting any patient in need of oxygen.

Dr Fauz Kavuma, the head of Covid-19 Isolation and Management Unit at Case Hospital, said they use 70 to 100 cylinders of oxygen, each day and sometimes source the gas from Jinja, about 90 kilometres east of Kampala.

When he imposed the second but partial lockdown on June 5, President Museveni raised concerns that rising numbers of critically-ill patients would lead to demand for oxygen outstripping supply, resulting in more deaths during the ongoing second wave.

Compiled by Nobert Atukunda, Tonny Abet and Esther Oluka

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