Runaway cost of oxygen tanks adds extra agony to pandemic in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A shortage of oxygen tanks in Mexico City and a fourfold rise in prices for the life-saving gas are compounding the coronavirus crisis for the sprawling capital’s hard-hit inhabitants.

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.

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

As a result, many people are finding it impossible to buy or rent the vital tanks for relatives suffering from COVID-19.

Eulogio Cruz, a 58-year-old street vendor, often came up empty-handed following frantic searching for oxygen for his sick sister-in-law, who is being treated at home for the highly-contagious respiratory disease.

“We’re really worried,” said an exasperated Cruz, after ticking off a day of long lines, regular disappointment and what he sees as blatant profiteering.

“These prices are outrageous and there’s no end in sight.”

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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 already full, according to government data. Deaths nationwide have surpassed 1,500 daily, with more than 20,000 new cases registered on Wednesday.

Deaths are expected to reach 150,000 in coming days, behind only the United States, Brazil and India. Those countries have also struggled to maintain sufficient oxygen supply, with Manaus in Brazil’s Amazon particularly hard hit in recent days.

Cruz ultimately turned to a friend who lent him a tank, but the cost of refilling it forced his sister-in-law to skimp on the amount of oxygen her doctor ordered. And then his friend’s brother also came down with COVID-19, and he asked Cruz to return the tank.

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.

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

In December, PROFECO temporarily shuttered 16 oxygen vendors charging prices deemed to be unjustifiably high in a country with the world’s fourth-highest coronavirus death toll.

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The capital city’s government late last year launched a free refill program for up to 100 of the pressurized cylinders per day in Iztapalapa and Gustavo Madero, both gritty, working-class districts.

“I don’t know what we would have done without it,” said Iztapalapa resident Alejandro Sampedro, whose father came down with COVID-19 a few weeks ago and was unable to find any tanks for sale or rent despite trying 80 medical supply stores.

Without the refill program, “maybe my dad would already be dead,” he said, adding that he still has to line up every three days in the cold just before dawn along with dozens of others, or risk losing out.

Elsewhere in the country, the sheer desperation to find scarce 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.

Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien