COVID-19: $1.6 billion urgently needed to tackle global shortage of oxygen

  • March 01, 2021
  • Area: Emergencies
  • Scale of global oxygen crisis laid bare as second wave of pandemic threatens to overwhelm health systems. 
  • Investing in oxygen will save lives beyond the pandemic – including for newborns, children with pneumonia and women in childbirth. 
  • Global pandemic response targets huge increase in funding to surge oxygen into poorer countries. Save the Children calls on donors and governments to step up. 

Geneva, 25 February: Some $1.6 billion USD must be raised to tackle global shortages of oxygen in an increasingly desperate battle to save lives threatened by COVID-19 in poorer countries, according to a global initiative that includes the WHO and World Bank. 

Many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are struggling to keep pace with a surging second wave of the pandemic. Medical oxygen is a vital part of treatment for the coronavirus and while it is universally available in most rich countries, many poorer countries are seeing health systems overwhelmed. Supplies that were already limited are becoming exhausted, leaving patients gasping for air. 

Dr. Zaeem Haq, Global Medical Director at Save the Children, said: 

“Vaccines are the light at the end of a long tunnel, but we need oxygen to keep people alive long enough to get through that tunnel. Hospitals and clinics are running out of oxygen as an unstoppable second wave of the pandemic strikes families with no chance of being vaccinated in time. Let’s be clear: oxygen is the life-or-death medicine for COVID-19 treatment, and lives that could be saved are being lost. 

“COVID-19 is not the only killer here. Oxygen is also vital to tackling childhood pneumonia, the world’s biggest infectious killer of children, as well as diseases such as malaria and sepsis. The danger now is that surging demand for oxygen on Covid wards will drive up the number of deaths among children needing oxygen. 

“Today’s announcement is a crucial step forward. It signals the world is now waking up to this deadly oxygen crisis – but the clock is ticking. Without funding to back it up, the commitment means nothing. It’s critical that donors urgently step up and meet this target. Every day that passes costs more lives.” 

The huge increase in funding for oxygen is being targeted by the ‘Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A)’, a ground-breaking global collaboration that aims to speed up an end to the pandemic by supporting the development and equitable distribution of tests, treatments and vaccines.      

Even before today’s budget announcement, however, ACT-A was facing a shortfall of $23.2 billion USD in its budget for broader measures to tackle the pandemic. Save the Children is calling for improved oxygen supply and infrastructure to be delivered alongside support for the entire ACT-A effort and particularly COVAX – the vaccines pillar of ACT-A – which is critical to end the pandemic by equitably distributing vaccines based on need.  

Save the Children’s teams are seeing the devastating impact of oxygen shortages that are wracking much of Southern Africa. In Malawi, major hospitals are now running out of oxygen. The number of COVID-19 cases there is doubling every 32 days – the 7th fastest rate in the world[i][i]. It’s feared the more infectious variant first discovered in South Africa has taken hold and is fanning the outbreak. The country’s oxygen needs are 3.5 times higher than before the pandemic[ii][ii]

Kim Koch, Save the Children’s Country Director for Malawi said: 

“The fragile health system is overwhelmed, and the oxygen supply simply can’t keep up with the second wave of the pandemic. Some COVID-19 patients are being treated in an emergency field hospital set up in the national stadium, which has already completely run out of oxygen once this month. There’s no doubt people are dying as a result.”  

Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit is working with the Government of Malawi to ensure staff at four new field hospital sites provide quality care for COVID-19 patients and follow strict infection prevention and control measures. These four facilities alone – with a combined total of 900 beds – would require more than seven million litres of oxygen a day when at full capacity. 

Zambia has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the region, after South Africa, and rural areas are particularly hard hit as they lack infrastructure, essential equipment, and electricity. In Tanzania, there is an urgent need for 3,650 oxygen cylinders to significantly increase access to oxygen therapy across the country. 

Latin America has also been hard hit. There are reports that oxygen demand in Peru has increased by 300%. Oxygen plants in the country are only able to produce 80% of what’s needed, according to Peru’s Ministry of Health. Oxygen tanks are increasingly scarce in Mexico, which has seen the third highest number of confirmed Covid deaths in the world[iii][iii]. And there are reports of oxygen shortages causing deaths in Manaus, Brazil, the lower- or middle- income country that currently has the highest oxygen needs on the planet – at more than two million m3 a day[iv][iv]

Save the Children is part of the newly-formed COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, which will work to assess oxygen demand and secure oxygen supplies and technical support for the worst-affected countries.[v][v] 

The aid agency is also concerned that lower income countries are not spending existing World Bank COVID-19 funding to meet oxygen needs. It is encouraging countries battling the second wave of the pandemic to ensure they have utilised all funding available for improving oxygen supplies. 


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