As South Africa’s third wave of Covid-19 infections begins to gather momentum, concerns surrounding the country’s oxygen supply are popping up again. Many public and private hospitals experienced critical oxygen shortages earlier in 2020, but suppliers say that lessons learned during the second wave have helped increase capacity to meet demand in the weeks and months ahead.
South Africa is recording a rapid rise in Covid-19 infections. In the last week of May, the country had recorded an average of 3,745 new daily infections, representing an increase of 33% from the week prior and 66% from the seven-day period before that.
These figures, signifying the start of the third wave, were cited by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday as he announced tougher lockdown measures to curb infections amid the country’s staggered vaccine rollout.
The last time South Africa witnessed a climbing positivity rate nearing 12%, which indicates a higher prevalence of infection in relation to the number of tests conducted, was in early December 2020. This rising positivity rate is one of the key metrics used to determine the resurgence of infections. The second wave was officially declared on 9 December, when the national positivity crept beyond 18%.
South Africa’s second Covid-19 wave, driven by the 501Y.V2 variant, peaked in January and was far more devastating than the first surge recorded in July 2020. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reports that in-hospital case fatality-risk (CFR) rose to nearly 30% during the second wave’s peak. The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) calculated that “excess” deaths more than doubled during the second wave as a result of increased strain on the healthcare system.
This strain, emanating from a higher admission rate, led to critical bed shortages and a surge in healthcare worker infections. But the dire lack of medical-grade oxygen, used to ventilate patients suffering the worst symptoms of the respiratory disease, proved to be especially deadly.
It’s against this backdrop that fresh concerns have been raised about the healthcare system and oxygen suppliers’ preparedness amid the third wave. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently listed South Africa as one of the countries – alongside India, Colombia, and Thailand – “on the brink of another oxygen crisis”.
But major suppliers say they are better prepared this time around, having learnt valuable lessons during the second wave.
“So far, the Steel and Engineering Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA) has not been alerted on any oxygen shortages at industry level,” said Chifipa Mhango, the federation’s chief economist, which surveyed 1,600 member companies during the second wave and found that 77% of respondents experienced shortages.
“However, we are of the view that lessons were learnt by suppliers on what transpired during the second wave to mitigate any future situations.”
Air Liquide SA and Afrox Healthcare, two of the main suppliers of oxygen to both private and public healthcare facilities, respectively, echoed that.
“Oxygen is produced and supplied from our five plants in South Africa with sufficient storage capacity which gives us full confidence in our ability to face a significant increase in demand,” an Air Liquide representative told Business Insider South Africa.
“During the two first episodes of the Covid pandemics in South Africa, we faced significant increases in demand for medical oxygen and were able to meet the demand of our clients. In the context of the third wave, we have enhanced the capacity of our storages and supply chain.”
Afrox, which was enlisted by the Western Cape government to bolster its supply of oxygen to public hospitals during the second wave, confirmed that it too had replenished its oxygen reserves to full capacity in anticipation of increased demand.
“Afrox is working closely with the department of health to ensure contingency plans are in place to meet the threat of a third wave of Covid-19,” said Afrox’s communications manager, Nolundi Rawana.
“Reserves at storage facilities across South Africa have been replenished to support Afrox’s installed production capacity of more than 630 tons of oxygen per day. Afrox also has the flexibility of bulk delivery tankers to transport oxygen to hospitals at increased levels.”
Afrox added that its bulk supply to hospitals and clinics was improved by remote telemetry monitoring which automatically schedules deliveries when tanks drop to 40% capacity.