April 25th, 2021 

By Asra Haque & Hamid Riaz


On Friday, April 23, Pakistan recorded its all time highest number of case fatalities since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in late February of 2020. A total of 157 patients succumbed to the viral respiratory disease, surpassing last year’s June 20th tally of 153 deaths.

Earlier, on April 21, National Command and Operations Center (NCOC) Chief and Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar revealed that more than 4,500 patients across the country are critical and are receiving oxygen, a nearly 30% increase in the number of critical cases recorded during the peak of the first wave in June of 2020. He said that 80% of the allocated ventilators are occupied while Pakistan is now consuming 90% the total oxygen being produced.

Umar reiterated that the country’s oxygen supply is severely stressed, and urged the nation to adhere to standard operating procedures (SOP) to prevent the collapse of Pakistan’s healthcare system and COVID-19 response.

“Most of our supply is being used for medical purposes now. Our company is not short of oxygen at the moment, but it may be soon as supplies allocated for industrial use are minute in comparison to what is being provided to the healthcare sector now,” confirmed a spokesperson for Pakistan Oxygen Limited, among the biggest bulk suppliers of oxygen in the country.

The company’s largest production plant is situated in Lahore’s Sundar area with a smaller production unit established in Shalimar.

Ejaz Ghumman, owner of Paradise Gases, an oxygen cylinder filling plant in Rawalpindi which supplies cylinders to the military and to at least eight smaller hospitals, provided that although there is no shortage in the supply currently but it may be a reality soon.

“Previously, some 60% to 70% of our supply is intended for industrial use while 30% to 40% was consumed by the healthcare sector,” he said. “Nowadays, 90% of our supply is being consumed for medical purposes, which leaves just 10% for industries which we’re also gradually cutting down even more to fulfil orders from the medical sector.”

He further provided that in addition to the supply volumes increasing tenfold, the price of oxygen cylinders is also skyrocketing due to the boom in demand.

“A year ago, I was selling one cylinder for Rs. 400. By April 21, the price per cylinder increased 100% to Rs. 800. But after April 21, in just the past three days one cylinder is being sold for Rs. 1,100 to retailers, an additional 75% increase in the selling price,” he said, providing that retailers sell cylinders to end-consumers for somewhere between Rs. 1,600 to Rs. 2,000 to keep up their profit margins.”

Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan convened a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) on COVID-19 after a briefing on the current pandemic situation with Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr. Faisal Sultan and National Command and Operations Center (NCOC) Chief Asad Umar.

Following the meeting, the NCOC issued new standard operating procedures to contain the unabated spread of the virus, attributed to the even more infectious UK B.1.1.7 variant. Under the new restrictions, schools in districts with over 5% positivity rates will remain closed till Eid; markets will close by 6 PM; offices must impose a policy of 50% attendance and will close at 2 PM; and indoor and outdoor banning will remain banned till Eid however takeaway and deliveries are allowed.

However, healthcare professionals have termed these restrictions inadequate and reiterated their recommendations to the Government of Pakistan to impose strict lockdowns.

“If the government does not want to take the extreme measure of imposing a strict countrywide lockdown, they should at least consider the option of two-week long intermittent lockdowns over the course of the next six months,” provided Dr. Salman Kazmi, General-Secretary of the Young Doctors Association and Medical Officer at Mayo Hospital in Lahore. “This will take off the burden on our hospitals’ oxygen reserves. If we hit the breaking point, and we are unable to replenish our oxygen reserves, Pakistan will soon see a similar scenario as the one in India right now where patients will be slowly dying on our pavements for want of oxygen.”

He also warned that if the situation is not brought under control now, Pakistan may potentially be isolated from the rest of the world.

“Pakistan is being put on travel ban lists for different countries. If the virus continues to spread, it will reach our perennial areas where it is even more difficult to control its spread and inoculate residents. The novel coronavirus disease will continue to persist in Pakistan for years to come – we will become a health risk to the world and be permanently outcast.”