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Breathing Easier: Nigeria Builds Oxygen Plants to Meet COVID-19 Demand

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Inside Yaba Mainland Hospital in Nigeria, about 100 seriously ill COVID-19 patients received oxygen treatments as they struggled to breathe.

Idoja Isaac, a 57-year-old former Nigerian Navy officer, was one of them.

“I would never believe that COVID-19 [could] happen to me,” Isaac told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “COVID-19 is real; it’s an enemy you cannot fight with [a] bullet.”

Instead, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is fighting the virus with finances. In response to a growing need for oxygen amid a deadly surge in cases, Buhari approved a roughly $17 million project to build 38 oxygen plants across the nation. The government earmarked an additional $671,000 to repair oxygen facilities in five hospitals.

Boss Mustapha, chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, said at least one new oxygen plant will be built in each state and that existing ones “will be made fully functional,” according to a report in The Vanguard.

The move was announced as Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, reported that large numbers of COVID-19 patients in isolation centers depend on oxygen to survive. In one of the city’s main hospitals, oxygen demand increased fivefold in January, Reuters reported.

“A patient with a critical case may use about six cylinders of oxygen in 24 hours,” Lagos State Health Commissioner Akin Abayomi told africanews.com.

A 47-year-old businesswoman from Lagos remembered the horrors of a week she spent in the COVID-19 wing of one of the city’s hospitals. All around her, patients struggled to breathe, the misery lifting only when a patient secured one of the hospital’s few oxygen tanks and cried with relief.

“There was a shortage,” the woman, who did not wish to be named, told Reuters. “It was discussed all around. It felt like that was the main issue — oxygen, oxygen, oxygen.”

Declan Eugene, an oxygen dealer whose company supplies hospitals in Abuja, told Reuters that oxygen became scarce in November. Eugene said he received calls from some customers he had not heard from in seven years.

“It was a really terrible situation,” Eugene said, adding that increased demand drove prices for oxygen tanks up from about $21 to $52.

A Clinton Health Access Initiative showed a need for improved access to oxygen in Nigeria well before the pandemic hit. Nigeria has at least 30 oxygen plants, but supply is limited due to poor maintenance and an irregular power supply. The Ministry of Health recognized the crisis and in 2017 began a five-year project to increase access to medical oxygen around the country.

Lagos Health Commissioner Akin Abayomi told AFP that the city never has run out of oxygen.

“We’ve been close to not having enough and we’ve been stretched, but we’ve never been in a situation when we had patients who needed oxygen, and there’s no oxygen.”

Some worry that could change as infections rise and a new strain of the virus spreads in the country.

Because of the severity of the second wave, Nigeria also dramatically increased its initial request of 10 million vaccine doses from the African Union, Reuters reported.

“We have applied for 41 million doses of a combination of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines,” Faisal Shuaib, who heads the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, told the news service.

Shuaib said the doses are expected to arrive by the end of April, adding that Nigeria was exploring multiple payment options, including through the African Export-Import Bank’s five- to seven-year plan.

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