Humanitarian relief NGO, Airlink, highlights the often over-looked oxygen supply challenge as medical supply chains in poorer countries struggle with the pandemic.
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, global healthcare systems remain overwhelmed with the impact on often fragile health systems in less economically developed countries significantly greater.
“This global pandemic has strained not only the availability of airfreight and the supply chain for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), but also other medical supply chains, including access to basic medications, critical medical supplies, and oxygen,” says Bethany Holland, Humanitarian Programs Manager at Airlink.
Many of the early strains on health systems due to shortages of PPE, airway equipment, and bed-space in medical facilities are gradually being addressed, Holland notes.
Airlink for instance, along with its partners at DHL Express, Flexport, and Qatar Airlines coordinated the movement of nearly 2,500 pieces of critical equipment and medicines for respiratory therapies and treatment. Holland highlights that the humanitarian sector continues to overcome obstacles in cargo movement to deliver life-saving supplies to communities around the world.
“But, we know that increasing the number of ventilators, for example, does not solve the treatment gap in overwhelmed low- and middle-income countries when a shortage of medical oxygen exists,” she adds.
While liquid oxygen is delivered and stored on medical facilities’ premises to be piped to a patient’s room in developed economies, this is not typically the situation in poorer economies.
For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia where healthcare systems rely on oxygen cylinders for delivering a patient’s source of medical oxygen, Holland highlights this critical shortage is especially debilitating.
Refilled by industrial gas companies and delivered to hospitals, the cost of this critical supply is in the hands of commercial companies.
The World Bank has noted that one of the biggest challenges to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the supply of available medical oxygen, while also reducing the cost. Only then will this critical supply be accessible to patients who need it most.
Holland points out current estimates show that a COVID-19 patient hospitalised for three weeks requires 60 large oxygen cylinders throughout their treatment, which can cost a patient thousands of dollars, depending on the commercial company servicing a hospital. And in some hospitals, patients are responsible for all costs incurred.
In Guinea, for example, this cost could be nearly USD 7,000 for three weeks of oxygen treatments.
Holland says the combination of the inability to pay for a hospital stay, alongside shortages of oxygen supplies can often be fatal.
“Our partners are dedicating their responses to alleviate the ongoing inequity in available COVID-19 treatments,” she says. Partners in Health, Direct Relief, and Last Mile Health are working to bolster health facilities through donating equipment such as oxygen concentrators, oxygen compressors, and pulse oximeters.
Airlink recently joined the Every Breath Counts Coalition to offer its partnership and services to community-based coalition actors in need of cargo support. “These partnerships and networks are not only vital but can be the difference between life and death for COVID-19 patients,” Holland says.
The next challenge for the developing world comes when vaccines become available. With much of the developed world buying up future vaccine doses, many fear the developing world will be left struggling to obtain the vaccine. And once they do, logistics challenges will immense in many of these countries.
Airlink is a nonprofit organisation working with aviation and logistics partners to transport relief workers and emergency supplies for reputable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) responding to rapid-onset disasters and other humanitarian crises around the globe.