In Peru, people line up day and night for life-saving oxygen

Lima (AFP) –


While loved ones are fighting for breath at home, hundreds of Peruvians have taken to sleeping on the street, sometimes for days on end, in queues of people desperate for oxygen amid a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the night chill, they take cover in small tents, under blankets or sheets of cardboard outside Criogas, a small oxygen factory in the port city of El Callao near the capital Lima.

Hundreds of man-sized oxygen cylinders line the street outside the factory, each bearing the name of the person who brought it.

"Yesterday I stood in a long queue. I've been here since 5:00 am yesterday. I arrived late because when I came, there were people who had already spent two or three days here," said Yamil Antonio Suca.

The 25-year-old student told AFP he hoped not to have to spend a second night sleeping rough, but did not expect to reach the front of the line by day's end.

Going home empty handed is not an option.

"My father has Covid-19, he is 50 years old, he needs the oxygen," Suca said.

- 'We do what we can' -

Every morning, factory staff aided by police officers do the rounds, revise the waiting list, and announce how many cylinders can be filled that day.

The factory has not increased its price, despite others having hiked theirs by as much as 300 percent -- a practice Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti has denounced as "truly criminal."

The second wave of Covid-19 has seen oxygen supplies run low in several South American countries, and many Peruvian families say their loved ones died because they could not access any.

At El Callao, people are willing to sleep rough for days on end, without bathroom access and some without food, to get their hands on the precious substance.

Many of their loved ones are being cared for at home, with hospitals running short on beds.

As dawn breaks, hawkers come around offering a humble breakfast of bread with avocado, or simply a coffee.

Miguel Angel, 22, says he is number 124 in line.

"We have a member of the family, 89 years old, in a bad way, we do what we can for her," he said. He came with his cousin to take turns waiting in line.

- 'She will die' -

Police were brought in to keep an eye on the hopeful buyers, prevent queue jumpers and thwart any merchants seeking to take advantage of the special price reserved for individual customers.

The mood among those waiting is somber with many worried about their ill family members, yet there is little evidence of jostling as many a supportive hug is shared.

Smiles brighten faces when a name is finally called and a bottle filled, bringing hope -- one patient at a time.

The factory can fill 10 bottles about every 45 minutes, until closing time at 5:00 pm.

"My mom is fragile, she's 69," said Yulitza Torres, 46. "If we don't bring oxygen she will die."

Residents of Lima and seven departments of Peru are under a new lockdown from Monday until at least February 14 as authorities try and brake the spread of the killer virus.

The country of 33 million inhabitants has registered more than 1.1 million cases and over 40,000 deaths since March last year.