HAVANA TIMES – They come with four or five tanks, people must be dying for lack of oxygen,” a young man from Sancti Spíritus says, seeing a horse drawn cart asking for clearance for a truck loaded with a few cylinders. The same hubbub, he says, happened earlier this week, when a shipment of medical oxygen was being transferred from the airport.
“Cienfuegos Hospital continues to have a deficit of oxygen. The helicopters of the Cuban Television Primetime News is symbolic for the need there,” a doctor in the province told 14ymedio on Thursday. The physician was referring to the images that flood the official media that illustrate the transfer of cylinders in military aircraft and trucks.
Fifty oxygen concentrators donated by the Government of China should have arrived in Havana by air over the weekend. This Thursday, the Telesur correspondent in Beijing echoed the tweet of a user who announced it, accompanied by two images in which the cargo piled up at the airport can be seen. The journalist recalls that recently 30 ventilators also left for the island from the Asian country, which together with Russia is becoming the largest partner of Havana after the Venezuelan collapse.
The Russians came to the aid of the Cuban authorities on Sunday to set up a plant that was added to the two that the Cuban Army already had at the San Antonio de los Baños Air Base. The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) have made their factories available to the Ministry of Industries to support the growing demand amid the peak of the covid-19 pandemic. But nothing is enough.
The complaints of patients and relatives warning of lack of oxygen, with alarming crises in provinces such as Ciego de Ávila, Villa Clara, Camagüey, Cienfuegos and Holguín, led to a propaganda marathon by the authorities on the distribution of medicinal oxygen on the island.
The amount of oxygen a covid patient needs is impossible to determine: it depends on their condition and the time required for assistance, which can be days or months. But the needs of countries where the explosion of the pandemic arrived earlier give an idea of the quantities required. In Spain, the largest manufacturer of this product explained in April 2020 (when deaths in the country were close to a thousand a day) that the demand had multiplied by four, by seven in Madrid (the most affected region) and, in the worst days, by ten.
As of last March, according to the State newspaper Granma, Gases Industriales Company, OxiCuba, located in the capital had last March, according to Granma, “the capacity to generate more production than that demanded by the Health system,” while in Santiago de Cuba it produced only 5% of the national demand on that date and covered the orders of the eastern region.
The official newspaper did not say how much medical oxygen the Cuban health system demanded, but according to data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (Onei), Cuba produced 20,726.8 million cubic meters in 2020, well below the 31,612 million of 2015, which gives an idea of the level of shortages that the country is suffering with a pandemic that has increased demand exponentially.
In the midst of the biggest wave of the pandemic, the worst news came: the breakage of a piece at the Havana plant, which kicked off this obstacle course to achieve one of the most necessary treatments in this context and whose current production is unknown.
Gases Industriales Santiago produces 930 cylinders a day, which it distributes mainly to the province’s health system, Granma and Guantánamo, but in recent days at least Holguín and Las Tunas have joined. To this production are added the 360 cylinders every 24 hours in charge of the military factories and the Russian plant installed at the San Antonio de los Baños Air Base.
In Las Tunas, the Stainless Steel Company produces barely 1,300 to 1,500 liters per day and in Holguín the support of the Gas Processing Complex of the military region was added, which according to a Cuban television report contributes about “seven cylinders” per hour (168 daily).
In Camagüey, in addition to the 250 medical oxygen cylinders that the territory’s business unit made last February, another 280 reinforcement units are added, which are “distributed in the 13 hospital centers of Camagüey, in addition to some thirty polyclinics in all municipalities,” according to a report in Prensa Latina published this Tuesday.
With the doubt about how many liters or cubic meters are produced per day and how many are being consumed on average, the official press has tried to calm a population desperate for gas, but when it has not fallen in the propaganda, it has contributed to sowing confusion.
A Public Health director, quoted by the Havana Tribune, admitted this Wednesday that in recent months compressed air had been used as a substitute for medicinal oxygen, which “also reported a deficit in recent days.”
Directors of Gases Industriales Santiago told the Cuban News Agency that “they produce compressed air, which allows saving medicinal oxygen, with problems in its coverage” and national television published Wednesday that the Marlin Azulmar Navy of Ciego de Ávila was bottling compressed air used for scuba tanks.
The information was also shared on the Facebook page of Televisión Avileña and withdrawn shortly after panic spread among some users over the use of this gas in patients with covid.
“The 40% oxygen reached with this filling is insufficient for serious and critical patients, but it is necessary and sufficient for those who arrive at a duty station with respiratory deficit because it is twice what we normally breathe in the atmosphere. It is a way to stabilize the patient and then give them the necessary treatment,” Televisión Avileña responded to several users, although fear is still in the environment.
Unlike other products that are easily available in the informal market, medicinal oxygen is scarce in illegal networks and sellers only market with highly trusted contacts, fearing strict police surveillance over that product. Its size and the need to have its own cylinder to carry out these clandestine operations make it even more difficult to purchase through this route.
A source from the Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery confirmed to this newspaper that, even with the gas deficit in recent days, some cylinders continue to go to the black market. Between Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, there were gaps in the medical center allocation, the source said. “When the truck arrived with the cylinders, it did not bring the amount that was stated in the documents. Apparently, they tried to sneak the missing one to the person in charge at the hospital, but they could not and had to leave without unloading the oxygen.”