The children call him begging for oxygen for their parents. Grandparents call in the middle of the night, panting, breathless. People who have no money offer their cars.
To all, Juan Carlos Hernández answers the same thing: he has no more oxygen cylinders.
After surviving the coronavirus and then losing his job, Hernández began selling oxygen cylinders, carrying them in his car. Then a second wave of the virus hit Mexico and demand for oxygen exploded, causing a nationwide shortage of cylinders, essential for survival.
Prices have skyrocketed. The black market for oxygen caps has multiplied. Organized gangs have started hijacking trucks loaded with oxygen cylinders or, according to media reports, robbing hospitals to steal them. And more and more Mexicans’ chances of survival suddenly depended on informal retailers like Hernández.
“We are working on the death market,” Hernández said. “If you don’t have the money to pay, you could lose your loved one.”
The worsening pandemic in Mexico has left more people infected with the virus than ever before – including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. With overcrowded hospitals and a lack of confidence in the healthcare system leading many people to face the disease at home, the number of deaths has skyrocketed. More than 30,000 deaths were reported in Mexico in January, the highest number of deaths in a month to date.
The total number of Covid deaths in Mexico, which already exceeds 168,000, is the third in the world, surpassing that of India, a country with ten times as many inhabitants.
One of the reasons so many people are dying now, doctors and government officials say, is oxygen scarcity. There are simply not enough oxygen cylinders.
“Oxygen is now like water: it is vital,” said Alejandro Castillo, a doctor who works at a public hospital in Mexico City.
New waves of Covid around the world are pushing the oxygen supply to hospitals in places from Los Angeles to Lagos, Nigeria to the limit. In Mexico, however, the lack is felt in the homes.
Eight out of ten hospital beds are occupied in Mexico City, the epicenter of the epidemic in the country, and emergencies are refusing patients. Many patients simply refuse to seek treatment, due to fear of hospitals, a trend that is well established in the country.
To survive at home, the sickest patients must receive purified oxygen pumped into their lungs 24 hours a day. So, his family and friends roam the city, often in vain, in an attempt to find oxygen cylinders and refill them several times a day.
David Menéndez Martínez had no idea how oxygen therapy worked until his mother fell ill with Covid in December. Now he knows that the smallest cylinder found in Mexico is capable of costing over $ 800 (R $ 4,287), up to ten times the cost in countries like the United States. Oxygen to fill it costs $ 10 ($ 53) – and it can’t last more than six hours.
Menéndez had cylinders which he borrowed from friends, but he still spent hours every day filling them up, making queues that stretched over blocks and which have already become common in some parts of the capital. Mexican.
“You see people coming in with their bottles, wanting to go to the front of the line and cry, desperate,” he said, recalling some of the calls he heard: “My dad is only saturated at 60. % oxygen. My brother is 50%. My wife can’t breathe. He turns blue, his lips turn blue. Help me.
Menéndez thought only of his mother. “I imagined my mother suffocating,” he says.
The outbreak in Mexico City began to grow exponentially in December, after authorities delayed the closure of non-essential commercial establishments for weeks, even when the number of people infected, according to the government’s own rules, had already reportedly been reported. had to lead to the imposition of an immediate lockdown.
Restrictions eventually intensified in the capital, but the holiday season has arrived and many Mexicans have ignored calls from the government not to leave home.
In the first three weeks of January alone, demand for residential oxygen rose 700% nationwide, according to Ricardo Sheffield, director of the Federal Department of Consumer Protection.
With the increase in demand, prices have tripled. Fraudsters have multiplied online.
“The increase was totally unexpected,” Sheffield said, noting that billing outrageous prices only worked because people were desperate. “If these people don’t get oxygen in time, they will die.”
Mexicans had no choice but to challenge the limited number of oxygen caps transferred from house to house by contractors like Juan Carlos Hernández.
A former truck salesman, Hernández is divided over his current job. He admits without hesitation that he has no training or leave, but he justifies what he does by saying that his job “saves lives”.
It stopped selling oxygen cylinders in December, when the distributors from which it purchases the tanks raised prices so that it could no longer pass the cost on to its customers. Today he sells concentrators, which are more expensive and attract customers with greater purchasing power. In a good week, he earns more than double what his previous job paid, selling truck finance.
“We must not take advantage of the suffering of others, it is inhuman,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I also do just that.”
For people who have no choice but to search for what they need in a chaotic market, finding someone to provide them with oxygen is a relief. During the time he spent scouring the city for oxygen, the only happy moments Menéndez can remember were when he came to the front of the line and left with his bottle full.
“It doesn’t matter if I ate or not,” he said. “It didn’t matter if it was cold, if I was tired, sleepy, if it was 3 in the morning. It was worth it: I had found a way for my mother to continue to breathe, to continue in this world.
When he met a salesperson who was willing to rent him an oxygen concentrator for $ 100 a week, Hernández felt a spark of hope. “It was a blessing.”
The device kept her mother alive – for a while, until her lungs could no longer take it. She was intubated on Christmas Eve. He died before the new year.