An Oxygen Shortage in Mexico City Exposes Mistrust in Hospitals, Fuels Black Market Activity
Mexico City is suffocating. The black market features a growing ubiquity of oxygen canisters- both those suitable for breathing along with their fraudulent, industrial-grade cousins- as the COVID-19 pandemic passed its one year anniversary.
Mexico bears one of the lowest coronavirus testing national rates in the world. In Mexico City, patients fill eight out of ten hospital beds. The government’s response, which has not included mandatory lockdowns or mask-wearing measures, pawns off the enforcement of public health protocols to the general public. This laissez-faire approach, combined with a mistrust in existing public services, culminated into a perfect storm. Mexico now possesses the third highest national death count, surpassing India, a country with ten times as many people. The Mexican government reported over 30,000 deaths from COVID-19 in January 2021 alone, its highest monthly toll thus far.
As cases skyrocket and canisters dwindle, breathable air transforms from a right to a commodity. Mexico doesn’t produce its own oxygen canisters and the federal government has encouraged northern states to begin importing oxygen canisters from the United States. The scarcity of oxygen tanks puts pressure on existing frailties within the Mexican healthcare system, with catastrophic consequences exacerbated by the government’s ambivalence towards public health protections. This turns Mexicans’ sights towards the black market. Office of the Federal Prosecutor for the Consumer (PROFECO) head Ricardo Sheffield reported that demand for at-home oxygen skyrocketed $700 in the first three weeks of January. The smallest tank in Mexico can cost more than $800, up to 10 times more expensive than in countries such as the U.S.. These smaller tanks cost $10 to refill and are depleted in only 6 hours.
The oxygen tank shortage is symptomatic of a deeper public distrust of the national healthcare system that predates the pandemic. Corruption pervades public life, sullying formal institutions’ credibility. Many Mexicans regard medical workers as just another head sprouted from the hydra of incompetent and self-serving government. Popular suspicion of hospitals creates a deadly feedback loop; citizens avoid seeking medical treatment until symptoms are severe, increasing their likelihood of dying under a doctor’s care. This in turn reaffirms and deepens the anxieties of family and friends left behind. Roughly 68% of Mexicans express doubts about sending their family members to a hospital for COVID-19 treatment. Moreover, conspiracy theories fester in a vacuum of trusted authority. While rumors about doctors stealing fluid from kneecaps or injecting patients with the virus to fulfill an annual death quota may sound ludicrous, their spread exposes the conspicuous absence of accessible, trusted medical information.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, lauded for his self-posturing as a crusader against state corruption, feeds into this echo chamber of paranoia. The deeply popular president champions fighting the coronavirus at home. He flouts mask-wearing and credits religious amulets for cocooning him from illness. On January 24th, 2021, the President tested positive for COVID-19. Despite this, Obrador still resists wearing masks and doesn’t publicly discredit conspiracies surrounding medical treatment.
The combined crisis of confidence in hospitals and the second wave of COVID-19 over the holiday season expanded oxygen’s black market. Anxious that a trip to the hospital sounds a death knell for their loved ones, families pay gouged prices for potentially defunct oxygen tanks. Lack of trust in the public sector pushed public health into the “highest bidder” territory of the unregulated black market. Heightening ordinary citizens' vulnerability to exploitation, the black market exposes the fissures between rich and poor’s access to crucial medical equipment. The market’s “invisible hand” does not correct for criminal exploitation.
Like a moth drawn to flame, criminal networks flock to easy opportunities for profit. The scarcity of oxygen tanks creates high demand and low supply for both desperate fraudsters and professional criminals to exploit by selling defunct or stolen canisters with industrial grade oxygen. People struggling to keep their family and friends alive lack the time or resources to scrupulously check an oxygen canister seller’s legitimacy. PROFECO head Ricardo Sheffield reported that police took down 700 Facebook pages and 100 internet websites selling fraudulent oxygen canisters. Scammers extract down payments of over $1000 from desperate consumers looking for any means to keep their loved ones breathing.
Despite the pressing circumstances, reaction rather than prevention defines the government’s response. The federal government responded to the uptick in fraud by deploying the Mexican National Guard to protect oxygen shipments. Nonetheless, this doesn’t address the shoddy public health infrastructure or the alienation between Mexicans and public officials that exacerbated their vulnerability to marketplace scams.
As the situation for the sick grows dire, a successful vaccine rollout is vital. President Obrador announced the projected supply of 24 million doses of the Russian-manufactured Sputnik V vaccine over the next two months. The government also approved the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, CanSino and Sinovac vaccines for use. Vaccine distribution still languishes at the moment. As of February 15th, 2021, only 0.51% of the population has received the first dose of any vaccine. With widespread vaccination months away, the acute oxygen shortage endures as a painful exhibition of what happens when marketplace dynamics fundamentally blind to social, economic, and political inequalities regulate public health. Grounding the relationship between ordinary citizens, healthcare workers, and government officials in common trust could prove crucial to removing pressure on the private market to provide public goods.