When news of acute oxygen shortages started pouring in from the neighbouring country, the Islamic Republic too had to hit the gas on its production capacity. With cases exploding during the pandemic’s third-wave, it was projected that Pakistan could also be experiencing the same catastrophic fate as India, if conditions did not improve by Ramazan’s end.
In the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which houses only two oxygen plants, the influx of coronavirus cases meant that the demand was suddenly much higher than the entire region’s production capacity. Case numbers were propelling in every hospital, attendants could be seen running from pillar to post for oxygen cylinders and the worst of K-P’s nightmares appeared to looming on the cusp.
“A man recently walked in right through our facility’s front door and begged for an oxygen cylinder,” recalled Khalid Afridi, who runs an oxygen production facility in the heart of Peshawar. “He looked like he was in dire need. Probably had a loved one gasping for air on a hospital bed somewhere. So we gave it to him, we don’t charge those in need,” he added.
Where Afridi’s kind gestures may have afforded many a new lease on life, nothing could mask the fact that production units like Afridi’s have been working round the clock and yet struggling to meet the province’s oxygen deficit.
Per local accounts, total oxygen production across K-P is some 1,500m3/hour, out of which over 120m3/h is produced by Afridi’s unit while around 1400m3/h is produced at another facility near Hattar Industrial Estate.
“We are producing 120m3/hour of oxygen right now but even if we could bump up our capacity to 300m3/h, we would still be falling short—the demand is much higher than usual, specifically for hospitals,” informed Khalid Afridi.
Speaking further, the plant owner stated that despite the increased demand, price for oxygen however has remained in logical bounds, at least on the factories’ end. “Currently a cylinder costs Rs800 but since we supply the same to the contractors, often times the market rates are up to them and what margin of profit do they leave for themselves. Yet I am sure no underprivileged person is being denied oxygen for home treatment,” he shared.
Following the surge of Covid-19 cases in K-P, the province’s eight major hospitals are said to have immediately reported an 83 per cent increase in demand for oxygen. In spite of which, government officials associated with healthcare provision maintain that the situation is still well under control, with enough back-up for tougher times.
Statistics reveal that earlier, the daily usage of oxygen in the said eight major hospitals was somewhere around 40,000 litres which however has increased by 80 per cent to 72,500 litres per day. While situation at different hospitals still varies depending on the influx and bed occupancy in their respective Covid-19 wards.
The daily oxygen consumption at Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), which is among the province’s most well-equipped healthcare centres, is up to 14,000 liters per day with a total storage capacity of 16,000 liters.
Hospital sources however state that although they are trying to keep a grasp on the situation, if cases persist to pile at the current rate, they could be looking at an acute oxygen shortage sooner than later.
Similarly, according to Khyber Teaching Hospital’s spokesperson, the Peshawar-based hospital has been grappling with the same situation as most tertiary-care facilities in the province. “Our daily oxygen consumption has already increased from 6,000 litres to 7,500 litres per day, owing to which we had to also boost our storage capacity to 10,000 litres. Anything beyond this could really push the facility in a state of crisis,” the spokesperson informed.
On the other hand, healthcare official privy to the development believe that consumption and demand for oxygen peaked following the advent of the virus’ third-wave, putting many hospitals operating beyond capacity and a province-wide shortage of hospital beds.
“The difference between previous spells and the third-wave is that time we are seeing many young people and children also falling sick to the point of oxygen dependency, which wasn’t the case before. Yet however, there is nothing to worry as yet and the situation is still under control, with protocols in place for maintaining oxygen supply,” a government source informed The Express Tribune on conditions of anonymity.