As Covid-19 spreads across Africa, corporate-manufactured oxygen shortages in the continent’s hospitals are leading to preventable deaths. Madlen Davies of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that ex-employees, industry insiders, and hospital staff have stated that corporate giants Linde Groupe and Air Liquide have overcharged for and limited supplies of oxygen to Africa’s poorest hospitals. The practices of price gouging and manufacturing shortages have led to an estimated profit margin between 45 percent and 88 percent on medical oxygen, causing some patients to discharge themselves from hospitals because they can no longer afford their treatment, and others to die from the shortages.
Discussed in the BIJ report, countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Guinea, South Africa, South Sudan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and many other regional hospitals and dedicated Covid-19 isolation centers have reported oxygen shortages. The multi-billion-dollar companies Linde Group and Air Liquide, European firms whose African subsidiaries include Afrox and British Oxygen Company (BOC), supply industrial oxygen to the mining, chemical, welding, food, and medical industries in nearly every country in Africa. The BIJ reports, “Air Liquide has charged up to a third more for medical oxygen than industrial oxygen, even though it comes from exactly the same gas plant; BOC/Afrox has charged up to seven times more for its medical oxygen. Some ex-employees interviewed by the Bureau felt this had almost bordered on profiteering.”
Air Liquide denies the 88 percent profit margin claim, stating that infrastructure, logistics, and competitive economic realities do not allow for these types of profits. They claim that purity tests, canister cleaning procedures, and the stringent regulations required by the medical community are what lead to the increased prices. Others claim there is simply no justification for the level of exploitation they witness, arguing that this process does not significantly increase production costs.
These oxygen companies do not have a history backing up their claims of innocence. In 2002, the European Commission fined Air Liquide and BOC for running an oxygen cartel in the Netherlands. The BIJ states, “The companies held regular meetings to fix prices and agreed not to deal with each other’s customers for at least two months every year, which were concluded to have been in order to raise prices and keep them at the set level.” Now, the Linde Group’s subsidiary Afrox is being investigated by the South Africa Competition Commission over alleged price-fixing. These corporations cannot easily be combatted though, as Maria Teresa Da Piedade Moreira of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development stated that the investments needed to enter the sector are so high, that a competitive market can never form.
Infrastructural and technological constraints add the monopolistic practices. Flow meters, the valves that regulate the release of oxygen, only fit BOC Kenya’s cylinders in many of Africa’s hospitals. A former industry insider claims that this is “[a]bsolutely purposeful… My entire life as a young worker, that’s what we did. We created those barriers intentionally to make swap-out as difficult as possible.” Being forced to operate with these companies, some hospitals report daily oxygen cylinder deliveries decreasing from 35 to 10, and some deliveries never arriving at all.
The oxygen shortage in Africa is not a new issue. However, corporate media outlets have failed to mention exactly why the shortage is happening. For example, in September of 2020, The New York Times published an article about what is being done to help Africa get more oxygen. The article details all of the funds and initiatives going towards the shortage, but the reader learns nothing about Air Liquide or Linde Group. Similar articles have been published in Bloomberg, BBC, and The Guardian, often relating to similar shortages in other countries. Corporate news failing to recognize this economic corruption in Africa furthers the neo-colonial agenda, making it that much easier to push the narrative that the Western world is Africa’s only hope for salvation. The independent media broke the important cause of Africa’s oxygen shortage, an aspect of the issue the corporate media has thus far not been willing or able to confront.
Madlen Davies, Sam Mednick, and Angela Onwuzoo, “Lack of Oxygen Leaves Patients in Africa Gasping for Air,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, August 9, 2020, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2020-08-09/lack-of-oxygen-leaves-covid-19-patients-in-africa-gasping-for-air.
Student Researcher: Leila Dodson (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Talmadge Wright (Sonoma State University)