After disinfectants, hygiene products and some essential commodities, people are panic buying medical oxygen cylinders and other related equipment to tackle respiratory distress in case they contracted COVID-19 and were left to their own devices.
Many affluent people are stocking up on oxygen cylinders, though some of them have not yet suffered COVID-19, and were willing to pay any amount of money, said traders and physicians.
The upshot of the sudden rise in the demand is unavailability of medical oxygen for those who really need it, a steep rise in its market price and an increased risk of fire and explosion hazards in the residential areas.
‘Oxygen therapy needs to be supervised by a physician. Otherwise it could lead to unexpected dangers and health hazards,’ health services additional director general Nasima Sultana said at a routine online press briefing on Tuesday.
She urged people not to stock up on oxygen cylinders to prevent an artificial crisis since it would endanger the lives of many COVID-19 and other patients who might need oxygen supplement.
Department of Explosives, which controls the import and storage of oxygen cylinders, said there are nearly 80,000 oxygen cylinders in the country, imported by four companies.
Nearly 8,000 cylinders were imported since March, the month the first COVID-19 case was detected, according to the explosives department.
The explosives department does not have any idea how many cylinders ended up at homes already.
‘The other day a woman called me crying that she needed emergency medical oxygen but was not finding it anywhere,’ said Rakibul Islam Uzzal, owner of online shop Medishop.
His business earlier relied on renting oxygen cylinders at Tk 100 per day but he ended up selling all his 40 cylinders in less than a month as it fetched him Tk 22,000 a piece, almost double the usual price.
‘I could have sold 100 cylinders every day,’ said Rakib.
The price of oxygen flow meter, which is used to control oxygen flow out of the cylinder, rose to Tk 10,500 a piece from Tk 1,500, he said.
The price of oximeter, which monitors oxygen saturation, doubled to Tk 2,500 at medicine pharmacies in Gulshan.
Bhatara-based Nursing Care owner Al Imran said that they received bulk orders from prominent private companies apparently stockpiling oxygen cylinders for their staff.
Kuwait Bangladesh Friendship Government Hospital superintendent Shihab Uddin said that about 80 per cent of hospitalised patients need oxygen support, often high flow oxygen, up to 50 litres per minute.
‘Oxygen therapy is crucial to treating COVID-19 patient,’ said Shihab.
Still, the 200-bed hospital, the first one to be dedicated for COVID-19 treatment, did not have enough portable oxygen cylinders until Sunday.
As the government began dedicating hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients, it soon became clear that almost all the hospitals, even the public ones, lack mechanism to provide most of its patients with oxygen.
Media were flooded with reports about COVID-19 patients grappling to get hold of oxygen cylinders at hospitals or wait for their turn with severe breathlessness crisis to get oxygen from a cylinder shared among many.
Still the panic buying of oxygen cylinders began only at the end of May, after the government lifted the lockdown restrictions amid daily spike of COVID-19 cases.
‘The government failed to properly respond to the coronavirus crisis and there was pent up frustration and lack of confidence about public healthcare system,’ said public health expert Rashid-e-Mahbub.
‘It all led people to panic amid a pandemic that left even the most advanced countries helpless,’ he said.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University’s public health and informatics associate professor Romen Raihan said, ‘There has been an absolute communication failure on the part of the government in making people realise about how they should act during a crisis.’
He said that the government should have controlled the oxygen cylinder market and acted hard on those increasing its prices and stockpiling it.
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