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As The Pandemic Continues To Hit, Mexico Struggles To Breathe Amid Oxygen Shortage

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has said the country's battle against COVID-19 is being waged successfully. But outside his office, thousands of Mexicans are trying to survive from the virus and just breathe. 

Like in the U.S., Mexico is facing a second wave of coronavirus, with a dramatic increase in cases and deaths since the beginning of the year. Thousands need oxygen as a result of the disease, bringing shortages of this vital gas in a barely regulated market that has also been plagued by abuse and crime.

Oxygen has become a rare, expensive and sometimes risky commodity.

2021 started for many in Mexico City very dramatically. The government and the people relaxed precautions during the holidays, but the pandemic wasn't taking a vacation.


Karla González — who still coughs, a lingering symptom of the coronavirus — got COVID-19, along with her family. But her dad struggles the most.

"So. a few days ago, he got very, very sick in a very critical state; I mean, it was very chaotic because I didn't know what to do at first", González recalled.

González said her dad doesn't have insurance, and public hospitals were packed, while private ones were unaffordable. She says one of them charges $5,000 dollars just to get on the waiting list.  

"He definitely said: ‘I don't want to go to die to a hospital'", said González.

From Conventions To COVID-19 Patients

One of the largest facilities in Mexico for COVID-19 was improvised inside Centro CitiBanamex, a congressional center in Mexico City. Heberto Arboleya, a seasoned doctor and former public officer, is its head of operations.

"The congressional center has become a full-fledged hospital", Dr. Arboleya said.

He explained it's a joint effort between the private and public sectors. The government covers the payroll and medicines, while contributing companies fund the rest.

"So far, we've helped more than 6,000 patients," the doctor said.

According to the expert, Centro CitiBanamex has now almost 600 beds, 1,500 nurses and more than 350 doctors. 

"There's been important efforts to fight the pandemic", the doctor said.

He explained Centro CitiBanamex has a program to provide free oxygen tanks to patients who may continue recovering at home. But he said there's an evident shortage elsewhere. 

'Like A Mission To Mars'

Karla González didn't find a hospital for her dad. He stayed home, and the next struggle was to find oxygen for him.

"We were living, I say, like a mission to Mars: you realize that you need oxygen to live," González said.

According to her, oxygen tanks weren't available among regular providers. She had to go on Facebook and buy one from a stranger.  

"You don't know if it's safe, maybe it's not real or maybe ... it's just a trap," said González.

Victor García sells oxygen condensers on social media. He says a Chinese neighbor helped him get into the business by bringing equipment from China. 

"I've seen many affected families without medical support, but at least I feel grateful that I've been able to help them fight the sickness in some way," García said.

"The demand (for oxygen equipment) has strongly increased," said García.

And with more demand comes a rise on the prices. He says the first condensers were sold last year at approximately $600 dollars; now it's around $1,700.

"The prices are also going up because customs are charging more tariffs ... and taking bribes," said García.

The Mexican government says they're trying to tackle unlawful trade.

Crime And Disappointment

"We have reports of fake oxygen tanks on the black market, as well as organized crime activities behind it", said Olga Sánchez Cordero, Mexico's secretary of State.

According to the authorities, they've arrested people either stealing oxygen or selling pirate equipment.

But Karla González says she's disappointed. 

"People die for COVID or people die because they don't have money, because there is no support from the government", González said.

González said homes are turning into hospitals, while the state doesn't provide enough economic help to quarantine or information to fight the disease. 

Gonzalez's dad is recuperating but still struggles with the illness. She says her family has spent more than $5,000 for her dad's treatment in just two weeks. This includes daily oxygen refills of almost $50 each, which come with hours of wait in long lines. 

She said the pandemic will hopefully unite the affected families to build contingency plans and generate conscience. 

"I think that, unfortunately, people don't believe until it's very close to you ... until it's your father ... or until it's you," she said.

And González says that she hopes that one day the president will learn that protecting the people is more important than his projects of building oil refineries.

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Rodrigo Cervantes was KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City from 2016 to 2021.