After the second wave of covid-19 hit Mexico this winter, the demand for oxygen tanks skyrocketed, and the country found itself facing a national shortage of the devices at the worst possible time. An oxygen black market cropped up, with organized criminal groups hijacking trucks filled with oxygen tanks or stealing them from hospitals. For the many Mexicans who distrust their country’s healthcare system, the best option for caring for their sick relatives is to care for them at home—which, for the sickest patients, can require a constant stream of purified oxygen pumped into their lungs. This leaves their friends and family members desperately searching for oxygen tanks and rushing to refill them multiple times a day.
Currently, even the smallest oxygen tank in Mexico can cost more than $800, and that’s without taking into account the $10 it takes to refill the tank with oxygen, reports the New York Times. Some tanks need to be refilled after only six hours of use. David Menéndez Martínez, a Mexico City resident whose mother contracted covid-19 in December, recalls the hours he spent waiting in line to refill his mother’s oxygen tank. “You see people arrive with their tanks and they want to get in front of the line and they end up crying, they’re desperate,” Martínez says. It was common to hear pleas like “my father is at 60 percent oxygen saturation. My brother is at 50 percent saturation. My wife can no longer breathe. She’s turning blue, her lips are blue, help me.”
In January, more than 30,000 people died in Mexico, which marked the highest monthly death toll the country has seen during the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s total number of deaths from the virus is currently the third-highest worldwide, even surpassing the death toll in India—a nation with ten times the population of Mexico. Officials say that a significant part of the reason so many Mexicans are dying right now is the shortage of oxygen tanks. Demand for at-home oxygen across the country rose by 700% in just the first three weeks of January—price gouging that many officials attribute to the high levels of people’s desperation to help their sick loved ones.
According to Alejandro Castillo, a doctor at a public hospital in Mexico City, “Oxygen right now is like water. It’s vital.”