Shortage of oxygen exacerbates crisis in Mexico

A shortage of oxygen tanks in Mexico City combined with skyrocketing prices for the life-saving gas are compounding the coronavirus crisis in the city.

In the metro area, home to some 22 million people, more than 20 medical oxygen distributors consulted by Reuters this week had no tanks in stock.

Lines stretch for hours at the few stores with available inventory.

RELATIVE OF COVID-19 PATIENT, ITZEL GONZALEZ: "(I have been here) about eight hours. I have been standing here since 10 a.m. waiting for my tank to be refilled. The oxygen is running low.”

RELATIVE OF COVID-19 PATIENT, SELENE SUAREZ: "For my sister - the test says she has coronavirus. She tested positive three days ago and she is getting worse. We have been here since four o'clock in the morning."

If buyers do get lucky, the price to refill a 24-hour tank is around $160 - more than 20 times the country's minimum daily wage of about $7 - and a four-fold rise since the end of last year as demand outstrips supply.

Mexico City is the epicenter of a second wave of contagion in the country, with nearly 90% of the capital's COVID-19 hospital beds full, according to government data.

Deaths are expected to reach 150,000 in the coming days, behind only the U.S., Brazil and India.

Several distributors said that refillable tanks containing 72 hours of oxygen should arrive by the end of the month, but they will cost $990 each to buy.

But Ricardo Sheffield, the head of national consumer protection agency PROFECO, said last week that oxygen tanks were available and that prices should be stable.

"The first thing we must say is that there is a sufficient supply of oxygen. There is not and cannot be a shortage of oxygen. Two companies maintain the same prices from Tijuana to Merida, so we can say with all certainty that there is not and will not be a shortage of oxygen."

In parts of the country, however, the sheer desperation to find oxygen tanks has taken reckless turns.

An armed man in the northwest border state of Sonora stormed a public hospital earlier this week, leaving with seven portable tanks.

No one was hurt, and local security officials later noted that most of the tanks stolen by the man were empty.

Video Transcript

REPORTER: A shortage of oxygen tanks in Mexico City combined with skyrocketing prices for the life-saving gas are compounding the coronavirus crisis in the city. In the metro area, home to some 22 million people, more than 20 medical oxygen distributors consulted by Reuters this week had no tanks in stock. Lines stretched for hours at the few stores with available inventory.

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: I have been here about eight hours. I have been standing here since 10 AM waiting for my tank to be refilled. The oxygen is running low.

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: For my sister, the test says she has coronavirus. She tested positive three days ago and is getting worse. We've been here since 4 o'clock in the morning.

REPORTER: If buyers do get lucky, the price to refill a 24-hour tank is around $160, more than 20 times the country's minimum daily wage of about $7 and a fourfold rise since the end of last year as demand outstrips supply. Mexico City is the epicenter of a second wave of contagion in the country, with nearly 90% of the capital's COVID-19 hospital beds full according to government data.

Deaths are expected to reach 150,000 in the coming days, behind only the US, Brazil, and India. Several distributors said that refillable tanks containing 72 hours of oxygen should arrive by the end of the month. But they will cost $990 each to buy. But Ricardo Sheffield, the head of national consumer protection agency PROFECO, said last week that oxygen tanks were available and that prices should be stable.

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: The first thing we must say is that there is a sufficient supply of oxygen. There is not and cannot be a shortage of oxygen. Two companies maintain the same prices, from Tijuana to Merida. So we can say with all certainty that there is not and will not be a shortage of oxygen.

REPORTER: In parts of the country, however, the sheer desperation to find oxygen tanks has taken reckless turns. An armed man in the northwest border state of Sonora stormed a public hospital earlier this week, leaving with seven portable tanks. No one was hurt. And local security officials later noted that most of the tanks stolen by the man were empty.