Oxygen now only available to highest bidders —Lagos COVID-19 patients, relatives allege

•No black market at LUTH, oxygen is N8,700 per cylinder —Management •A patient requires eight to 16 cylinders per day

SUBAIR MOHAMMED presents his findings after visits to isolation centres in Lagos to track the oxygen crisis trailing them.

ON Tuesday, when Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State confirmed the oxygen emergency for COVID-19 patients in the state, he was merely establishing what had been on the information highways days before, primarily circulated by relatives of patients at isolation centres in Yaba and Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba. According to the governor, the recent spike in the number of infections that require hospitalisation and medical emergency has forced an increase in the required number of oxygen cylinders to 350 per day from the initial 70 – a 500 per cent increase.

The attendant scarcity of oxygen at both the Yaba centre and LUTH, according to reports, is responsible for alleged shady deals being perpetrated by medical personnel at the two centres. The personnel are alleged to be assigning available oxygen to the highest bidder, thereby, forcing relatives of hospitalised patients to pay huge bills, contrary to the official position that the government is responsible for the treatment of the patients.

Saturday Tribune launched an investigation into the myriad of allegations being thrown around and the secrecy in which activities at the isolation centres were shrouded. The LUTH management, however, denied the existence of oxygen racketeering at its centre but revealed the cost of an oxygen cylinder.


Who pays?

In its denial, the LUTH management said there was no truth in the allegations bordering on oxygen racketeering and sales of oxygen to COVID-19 patients at black-market rate at the hospital. The denial by the management followed a post which went viral on WhatsApp alleging that LUTH was overwhelmed by the rise in COVID-19 infections in the state and that Lagosians were in trouble due to the rationing of available oxygen, shortage of supply to patients at the facility as well as catering to highest bidders first.

The post, which alleged that all non-emergencies had been halted, claimed that government was no longer sponsoring COVID-19 treatment for patients. It read: “Lagos is in trouble now! The spike in cases is overwhelming the system. The ‘B’ block, closed in LUTH after first wave, has been reopened and is full. Government is no more sponsoring treatments. It is you and your family. Oxygen is in short supply. Provision of oxygen to the patients is critical to staying alive. All non-emergencies in LUTH have been suspended and all resources are geared to COVID-19 care. Admission deposit in LUTH is N100,000. Treatment at Lagos State hospitals, including Infectious Disease Hospital (IDH), are free but your family will buy everything. Oxygen is being pushed to the black market. To refill your cylinder at the plant is N20,000 per cylinder.

“In the black market, oxygen sells for N50,000 to N100,000, depending on availability and desperation. Patient requires eight to 16 cylinders per day, while to maintain oxygenation in inflamed lungs, a patient requires six liters of oxygen per day.”

But the acting Public Relations Officer of LUTH, Mr Pius Oko, in a chat with Saturday Tribune, debunked all the allegations, describing them as untrue. According to him, there are lots of conspiracy theories, especially on social media platforms of people who are bent on discrediting government’s efforts. He said there was no such thing as oxygen being traded at black market at LUTH, noting that government still sponsors all COVID-19 treatment for patients.

“There is no racketeering in LUTH. There is no black market. The management has put everything in place to ensure that all COVID-19 patients and other patients are well taken care of. None of our staff, be it medical or non-medical, are involved in the alleged oxygen racketeering. They are thoroughbred professionals. Oxygen is available to the patients as and when needed,” Oko said.


The visits

Following the back-and-forth over the alleged oxygen racketeering, Saturday Tribune paid unscheduled visits to the popular ‘B’ block, a two-storey building housing COVID-19 patients at LUTH, to authenticate the social media claims. On the first visit to the block on January 14, an aged female COVID-19 patient was seen on a stretcher on the ground floor receiving care in an ambulance parked at the lobby of the block. Movements were restricted within the block and a security guard was stationed at the entrance of the wing, warding off all trespassers, but this reporter was able to manoeuvre his way through the first and second floors of the block for an on-the-spot assessment.

On both floors, there was no sight of medical staff but COVID-19 patients isolated at the facility, the majority of whom, according to the Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee, CMAC, at LUTH, Professor Wasiu Adeyemo, required oxygen to stay alive.

Back on the ground floor of the ‘B’ block, a male doctor wearing protective gear was seen tending to the needs of the female COVID-19 patient.

When asked to respond to the allegation of sales of oxygen to patients at the black market, the doctor, who pleaded for anonymity, exclaimed: “Oxygen in black market? Where is that coming from? I have heard that from you for the first time. We don’t trade in oxygen here in LUTH. Ours is to treat the patients in line with international best practice and I can assure you that that is what we are doing.”


Oxygen is N8,700, not N100,000 –LUTH Management

Speaking to Saturday Tribune at LUTH on Tuesday, son of a COVID-19 patient undergoing treatment at the hospital who identified himself simply as Ademola said his father required six cylinders of oxygen per day to survive the disease.

Regarding the official claim that government wholly caters for the treatment of COVID-19 patients at the facility, he said the claim wasn’t true as his family had been struggling to meet up with the financial demands of his father’s treatment, adding that his family, and not the government, had shouldered the financial responsibility of his father’s treatment since he was admitted.

“We pay N8,700 for a 7m cylinder of oxygen and we require between four and six cylinders daily. I don’t know if the government subsidises the treatment in other ways but we meant to pay for the oxygen that is given to my father. LUTH operates like a private hospital. In fact, I would say it is more expensive than a private hospital. We, not the government, are responsible for the treatment of my father.”

LUTH spokesperson, Oko, confirmed Ademola’s claim on the pricing of the oxygen and did not deny that patients were buying. Oko said a cylinder of oxygen at LUTH went for N8,700 and not N100,000, adding that oxygen was available to patients on demand. Responding to the staggered prices of oxygen, Oko said: “As I said earlier, at LUTH, we are concerned about the wellbeing of our patients. Our oxygen sells for N8,700 per cylinder as against the between-N50,000-and-N100,000 claim that is being peddled around. Aside from this, the government is responsible for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. They sponsor COVID-19 treatment for patients.

“Our COVID-19 patients are well taken care of by our medical staff. We have professionals who are trained in infectious disease management and we give adequate care to every patient. To this end, there has not been any patient that has come up with any allegation or compliant about our care at LUTH. I don’t know how or where you got the allegation from but I can tell you that we have the billing process and every financial transaction is documented. So, forget about what you heard. The reality is that most of what you heard is untrue. There are lots of conspiracy theories from the people. People are out there saying whatever they like just to discredit the government. With the obvious impact of COVID-19, you must have heard that some people are still saying that the virus is a scam.”


There is oxygen shortage here –CMAC chair

Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee at LUTH, Professor Adeyemo, disclosed that all patients admitted at LUTH require oxygen. He made this known in a recent interview on the severity of the second wave of the pandemic.

“During the first wave of COVID-19, about 10 to 20 per cent of patients in LUTH required oxygen but I can assure you, this second wave, one hundred per cent of patients admitted in our wards require oxygen. This second wave is more severe and we are also recording lower age range. This, in my own opinion, is direct consequence of what happened in December during the festive season when many people threw caution to the wind.

“They went partying believing that COVID-19 had gone away. They went to their villages and returned to Lagos. The airspace is open for people to move into the country from overseas and that is the result we have here,” he stated.

When Saturday Tribune visited the ‘B’ block on Tuesday, a staff member of hospital disclosed that he had given out 52 cylinders of oxygen which had been used by patients to be refilled. Saturday Tribune sighted the cylinders being loaded into a vehicle at about 12.00 pm for refill.

He also spoke on the pricing and daily oxygen consumption of the average patient. “Patients pay N8,700 for a cylinder of oxygen. And depending on the severity of their cases, a patient may require seven to eight cylinders of oxygen per day. With the record before me, BOC gas is to refill 52 cylinders of oxygen that have been used by patients. With a patient requiring at least six cylinders per day, this implies that the 52 cylinders can take care of between seven and eight patients if a patient requires seven cylinders of oxygen per day. Considering this and the number of patients isolated at the facility, LUTH is short of oxygen. Perhaps that is why some people prefer to patronise black market to save the lives of their loved ones.”


Death scare at isolation centre

In a related development, a yet-to-be-identified Nigerian mother, who appeared to be receiving treatment for COVID, has accused the management of Infectious Disease Centre, Yaba, of selective treatment of patients at the facility. She claimed that there had been preferential treatment in the distribution of oxygen. She argued that wealthy patients were being given priority for a price.

In a viral video, the woman, who appears in sleeveless lingerie, laments the alleged ill-treatment being meted out to patients, advising members of the public diagnosed with the virus to self-isolate at home, so as not to get killed at the isolation centre in Yaba.

She says: “Please, if you know anyone who has COVID-19, you should self-isolate rather than go to Yaba IDH for treatment. They are killing people at Yaba isolation centre so that they can have numbers to count. Imagine, they will take our oxygen, oxygen that our families bought for us. They would take and give it to other patients. They give oxygen to only patients that can bribe them. They give care to patients that can afford to bribe them. The Lagos State government should look into Yaba isolation centre. They are just killing people. Sometimes our oxygen will be finished and they will not give us another until late in the night. It is better to stay at home and be safe than get isolated at Yaba and be killed.”

Efforts by Saturday Tribune to confirm the allegations with the Chief Medical Director of the centre, Dr Bowale Abimbola, were unsuccessful as he neither picked calls made to his mobile phone nor responded to the SMS sent to him.

A visit by Saturday Tribune to the facility yielded no gain as visitors were barred from accessing it.


Sanwo-Olu’s alarm

Speaking on oxygen shortage in the isolation centres, Governor Sanwo-Olu had said: “The increase in the positivity of cases has necessitated the provision of greater amounts of concentrated oxygen for the moderate to severe cases on admission in our isolation centres. Over the last few weeks, the demand for oxygen has risen from 70 6-litre cylinder per day to 350 6-litre cylinders in our Yaba Mainland Hospital. This is projected to more than double to 750 6-litre cylinders before the end of January 2021.

“In addition to providing oxygen at our isolation centres, the Lagos State government has decentralised the availability of oxygen across the state through the provision of 10 oxygen and sampling kiosks. Oxygen therapy and other related services will be provided to patients that require them. Five of these 10 centers have been commissioned while the remaining five will be ready for use within the next four weeks. It is our expectation that these sampling kiosks would be easily accessible to residents that require oxygen therapy at the level of LGAs as stabilisation points prior to onward transmission to our isolation centres, if required.

“This strategy is to further increase the fighting chance of Lagos residents that have contracted the virus and require immediate oxygen therapy. As a result of the increasing demand for oxygen, the Lagos State government also commissioned an oxygen plant at the Yaba Mainland Hospital to mitigate the projected need.


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