SHELLEYGAN PETERSEN, CHARMAINE NGATJIHEUE, HILENI NEMBWAYA and SHINOVENE IMMANUEL
NAMIBIA'S Covid-19 facilities are packed beyond capacity, resulting in severely ill patients being taken off oxygen support.
So dire has the situation become that some patients' family members are scrambling to acquire their own oxygen tanks to keep loved ones alive.
Statistics issued by the Ministry of Health and Social Services on Sunday show that 374 patients are currently hospitalised nationwide, with 61 in intensive care units and 25 in high-care beds.
Executive director of health and social services Ben Nangombe yesterday said when doctors decide to take certain patients off oxygen it involves a clinical decision, and the ministry does not intervene in such decisions.
"Those clinical decisions are made by the doctors, but we are supplying the oxygen we can supply," he said.
He said bulk oxygen tanks were recently installed at the Katutura Intermediate Hospital while other hospitals, like Windhoek Central Hospital, continue to rely on oxygen cylinders.
"The health system was never built for this," Nangombe said.
He said the high demand for oxygen is affecting the quality of available oxygen.
"... it has an impact on both the pressure of the available oxygen and possibly the purity," he said.
Nangombe said Namibians have become complacent about the virus.
This has led to an increase in infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
The executive director said Namibia's infrastructure and number of healthcare workers will never be enough if Namibians do not change their behaviour.
"Unless we change our behaviour ... we can spend money till kingdom come, but we will still not be able to change the trajectory and direction of the pandemic," he said.
He said the ministry has provided bottled oxygen and bulk oxygen tanks to the Katutura Intermediate Hospital.
In addition, extra oxygen-generating plants are being set up at Windhoek Central Hospital.
The Namibian reported just over a week ago that the government was facing a critical oxygen shortage at state hospitals because of existing oxygen-generating systems collapsing.
Some health officials are pointing fingers at businessman Knowledge Katti, whose company, Intaka Technology Namibia, has been supplying hospitals countrywide with oxygen since 2011.
Katti could not be reached for comment yesterday.
There have been concerns in the past that the politically connected Katti is shielded against scrutiny.
In 2010, a World Health Organisation (WHO) investigation found that Intaka, the government's preferred oxygen supplier, did not meet basic global standards, bluntly declaring Intaka as unsafe.
END OF LIFE
The Namibian spoke to several medical practitioners and patients struggling to get access to Covid-19 facilities.
"The lack of oxygen is a very serious issue. Seriously ill people are being taken off oxygen and left to die so that doctors can focus on those who have a better chance of survival," one patient's acquaintance said.
Some seriously ill patients are allegedly turned away from hospitals due to a lack of beds.
Others' relatives have been sending them to the Erongo region or to north-eastern towns like Rundu or Katima Mulilo, hoping to get access to oxygen.
A source at a state hospital confirmed that some patients have been taken off oxygen, saying doctors worldwide have to grapple with this type of decision "for the greater good".
The source confirmed the recent installation of a 20-tonne tank at the respiratory unit at the Katutura Intermediate Hospital by Afrox.
"But at the central hospital and the rest of the country, where Intaka supplied the oxygen used, there are major problems. They are using oxygen cylinders at some hospitals," the source said.
CONCERN IN THE NORTH
A number of hospitals in the country's northern regions are also experiencing oxygen shortages.
District hospitals such as the Onandjokwe Lutheran Hospital, the Oshakati Intermediate Hospital and Ongwediva Medipark have in the past weeks had to transfer patients from one hospital to the next in search of sufficient oxygen.
Oshana health director Johanna Haimene yesterday said the region is experiencing a number of challenges.
"Some hospitals are still without oxygen supply," she said.
Omusati health director Alfonso Amoomo said the region has not experienced a lack of oxygen, but has ordered additional supplies.
"Our facilities still have enough space to cater for Covid-19 patients," he said.
Amoomo said Intaka's oxygen equipment sometimes malfunctions.
Currently Omusati has about two patients on ventilators.
Ohangwena health director John Hango could not be reached for comment.
Oshikoto health director Joshua Nghipangelwa said the Onandjokwe hospital is running low on oxygen, and the hospital is currently only operating on critically ill patients.
The Tsumeb and Omuthiya hospitals received oxygen supplies yesterday.
"But I think it will only last us about three weeks. We want more, because Covid-19 cases are still rising in the region," he said.
Nghipangelwa said the oxygen plant at Onandjokwe needs to be upgraded to cater for more patients.
Former health minister Bernard Haufiku, who was ousted from the Covid-19 response team last year, was outspoken on several operational issues.
This included creating a Covid-19 facility at the former Ramatex factory in Windhoek to accommodate patients in case the pandemic hits Namibia hard.
Health officials said minister of health and social services Kalumbi Shangula made a mistake by rejecting Haufiku's suggestion as health facilities in the capital are now packed.
Windhoek's Central Hospital is largely occupied by Covid-19 patients who have taken over the casualty ward, 1 East, 2 East and 3 East.
Haufiku, who is currently the chairman of the Africa Public Health Foundation, a foundation of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, told The Namibian on Sunday that the oxygen supply market is being held hostage, leading to the government's current crisis.
"We can assist with linking you to companies other than those who seem to hold the Namibian oxygen supply market hostage, to help supply additional and possibly more affordable oxygen," he said.
Haufiku further pleaded with the health ministry to reconsider Ramatex as a Covid-19 facility.
"We can still do it if there is political will and collective leadership, both public and private. We shouldn't keep looking back," Haufiku said.
He also recommended stricter regulations "as a matter of urgency", saying the entire country is in danger.