Jakarta / Bekasi, Indonesia – In front of a small store in South Jakarta, dozens of people line up for the chance to save the life of a loved one.
In the Indonesian capital, oxygen is an increasingly valuable commodity as the country battles a relentless wave of COVID-19 cases.
“I’m here to buy an oxygen tank for my mom, she tested positive on Sunday and we tried several hospitals but all of them are full,” Pinta said as she stood in line.
“I received a list of places that sell oxygen, but everyone we went to was either closed or sold out. Thank god my friend told me to come here.
The search for oxygen in Jakarta in recent weeks has been an unpredictable ordeal – a sick person’s chances of survival can depend entirely on chance, whether their loved one was in the right store at the right time.
Another woman in the line, Winda, says she’s trying to find oxygen for her brother-in-law.
“I struggled to find oxygen last night. I went to five places, including this store and a large drug market, but it all ran out, ”she said.
“We went to the health center… they said to give oxygen at home while waiting for the hospital… but we have been waiting for two days and there is no hospital referral.
“We are more worried than ever”
Minanti, 29, cares for her elderly father at home after an unsuccessful attempt to get him admitted to hospital.
He is diabetic and also has heart and kidney problems, which puts him at increased risk for coronavirus.
But he still couldn’t secure a place in crowded Jakarta hospitals.
“We tried hospitals near us… we went to the emergency room and they said: ‘look around you, it’s full’, and they even told us that they had oxygen problems”, Minanti said.
“Another hospital was also full. They have a tent in front of the building, full of sick people… we were so scared.
Now, like thousands of Indonesians, Minanti understands the difficulty of trying to get a bottle of oxygen during this wave of infections.
“It was super difficult to get the oxygen tank. We borrowed it and all of a sudden the owner asked for it because they too got COVID, ”she said.
Eventually she was able to buy an oxygen tank – but filling it is a constant struggle.
“It was almost like a miracle to have the tank. Now he has to have oxygen all the time because he is constantly out of breath, ”she said.
“The government should have reacted quickly from the start… now the cases have exploded. The oxygen tank is difficult to buy, it is difficult to fill it, and the hospitals are already full.
“We couldn’t help them”
It’s not just the general population struggling with oxygen and drug shortages – medical professionals also told Al Jazeera that they don’t have enough essentials to help all who have them. need.
Dr Erni Herdiani is the head of Lemah Abang Health Clinic in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta.
“We need oxygen tanks, oxygen refills and medicine. We are dealing with serious illnesses, we need drugs like remdesivir and we cannot find any, ”she said.
“We have to give patients oxygen and medicine. We’re running out of oxygen tanks… it’s beyond my expectations. So many patients need oxygen and filling is even more difficult lately. “
Dr Erni would like to buy more oxygen tanks for his clinic but says that is impossible.
“Right now, we just can’t buy it. There are no tanks. We need the government to provide it, ”she said.
As hospitals in Java and other parts of Indonesia near capacity, it is up to public health clinics to care for the few of the thousands of sick people who cannot be admitted.
But Dr Erni’s team is also under pressure – there are less than 30 health workers in his clinic and they follow more than 300 patients.
Every day, a team of traveling doctors from his clinic visits some of the sick.
The team has become accustomed to finding dead patients in their homes.
“Right now there are a lot of losses [of life] at home. Sometimes we have the report of someone who has passed away, when we check the body they are positive, ”she said.
Dr Erni believes official government figures, which put the death toll at over 66,000, are an understatement.
“It’s underestimated. It’s very sad because we couldn’t help them.
Even large hospitals are struggling with shortages or delays in receiving oxygen.
This week, at least 33 patients with severe coronavirus infections died at the hospital in Yogyakarta City, on the island of Java, when the hospital temporarily ran out of oxygen.
A spokesperson for Dr Sardjito General Hospital told media there had been delays from suppliers.
“We don’t see this problem”
Dr Siti Nadia Tarmizi of the Indonesian Ministry of Health said they had already rectified the logistical issues related to the transport of oxygen.
“What happened in Jogjakarta… due to the number of patients their stock was running out very quickly and the next shipment was not until the next morning. They had little oxygen… there was not enough time there” , she said.
“We are speeding up distribution. It used to be two or three days, now we ask [them] to be ready to send in a 12 to 24 hour cycle.
The Minister of Health has asked oxygen producers to reorient their efforts towards providing medical rather than industrial oxygen.
“We are working on managing the oxygen situation, in fact our national gas industry, the capacity is still there,” Dr Nadia told Al Jazeera.
Dr Nadia said the priority was to provide oxygen to hospitals and public health facilities. She said there was no shortage of oxygen.
“I don’t think it happened. We currently do not see this problem for health facilities, there are few of them but we are trying to fill their stock, ”she said.
“The cases could increase to 50,000 or 70,000 a day. The need [for oxygen] is met, but it is not yet at the security level.
Dr Nadia said the health ministry had not forecast such a large increase in the number of cases.
“The main problem was, last week, that we had a huge number of patients that we didn’t expect,” she said.
“It is very difficult to find ambulances and health facilities. Sometimes, when they arrive at the health center, they have already died on the way … or patients die at home. “