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COVID-19: $1.6 billion urgently needed to tackle global shortage of oxygen

  • Scale of global oxygen crisis laid bare as second wave of pandemic threatens to overwhelm health systems.
  • Investing in oxygen will save lives beyond the pandemic – including for newborns, children with pneumonia and women in childbirth
  • Global pandemic response targets huge increase in funding to surge oxygen into poorer countries. Save the Children calls on donors and governments to step up.

Geneva, 25 February 2021 – Some $1.6 billion must be raised to tackle global shortages of oxygen in an increasingly desperate battle to save lives threatened by COVID-19 in poorer countries, according to a global initiative that includes the WHO and World Bank.

Many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are struggling to keep pace with a surging second wave of the pandemic. Medical oxygen is a vital part of treatment for the coronavirus and while it is universally available in most rich countries, many poorer countries are seeing health systems overwhelmed. Supplies that were already limited are becoming exhausted, leaving patients gasping for air.

Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK, said:

“Vaccines are the light at the end of a long tunnel but we need oxygen to keep people alive long enough to get through the tunnel. Hospitals and clinics are running out of oxygen as an unstoppable second wave of the pandemic strikes families with no chance of being vaccinated in time. Let’s be clear: oxygen is the life-or-death medicine for COVID-19 treatment, and lives that could be saved are being lost.

“COVID-19 is not the only killer here either. Oxygen is also vital to tackling childhood pneumonia, the world’s biggest infectious killer of children, and diseases such as malaria and sepsis. The danger now is that surging demand for oxygen on Covid wards will drive up the number of deaths among children needing oxygen.

“This announcement is a crucial step forward. It signals that the world is now waking up to this deadly oxygen crisis – but the clock is ticking. Without funding to back it up, the commitment means nothing. It’s critical that donors urgently step up and meet this target. Every day that passes costs more lives.”

The huge increase in funding for oxygen is being targeted by the ‘Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A)’, a groundbreaking global collaboration that aims to speed up an end to the pandemic by supporting the development and equitable distribution of tests, treatments, and vaccines.

Dr Tsitsi Chawatama, NHS Paediatrician and Save the Children UK Chair, said:

“As a consultant paediatrician working in the NHS, I can tell you that medical oxygen can make the difference between life and death for children suffering from pneumonia – just as it can for adults being treated for Covid-19. This emergency plan is incredibly welcome and I urge donors to support it.”

Even before today’s budget announcement, however, ACT-A was facing a shortfall of $22.9 billion in its budget for broader measures to tackle the pandemic. Save the Children is calling for improved oxygen supply and infrastructure to be delivered alongside support for the entire ACT-A effort and particularly COVAX - the vaccines pillar of ACT-A – which is critical to end the pandemic by equitably distributing vaccines based on need.

Save the Children’s teams are seeing the devastating impact of oxygen shortages that are wracking much of Southern Africa. In Malawi, major hospitals are now running out of oxygen. The number of COVID-19 cases is doubling every 32 days – the 7th fastest rate in the world[i]. It is feared the more infectious variant first discovered in South Africa has taken hold and is fanning the outbreak. The country’s oxygen needs are 3.5 times higher than before the pandemic[ii].

Kim Koch, Save the Children’s Country Director for Malawi said:

The fragile health system is overwhelmed, and the oxygen supply simply can’t keep up with the second wave of the pandemic. Some COVID-19 patients are being treated in an emergency field hospital set up in the national stadium, which has already completely run out of oxygen once this month. There’s no doubt people are dying as a result.”

Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit is working with the Government of Malawi to ensure staff at four new field hospital sites provide quality care for COVID-19 patients and follow strict infection prevention and control measures. These four facilities alone – with a combined total of 900 beds - would require more than 7 million litres of oxygen a day when at full capacity.

Zambia has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the region, after South Africa, and rural areas are particularly hard hit as they lack infrastructure, essential equipment, and electricity. In Tanzania, there is an urgent need for 3,650 oxygen cylinders to significantly increase access to oxygen therapy across the country.

Latin America has also been hard hit. There are reports that oxygen demand in Peru has increased by 300% and according to the Ministry of Health in oxygen plants in the country are only able to produce 80% of what’s needed. Oxygen tanks are increasingly scarce in Mexico, which has seen the third highest number of confirmed covid deaths in the world[iii]. And there are reports of oxygen shortages causing deaths in Manaus, Brazil, the lower- or middle- income country that currently has the highest oxygen needs on the planet – at more than 2 million m3 a day[iv].

Save the Children is part of the newly-formed COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, which will work to assess oxygen demand and secure oxygen supplies and technical support for the worst-affected countries.[v]

The aid agency is also concerned that lower income countries are not spending existing World Bank COVID-19 funding to meet oxygen needs. It is encouraging countries battling the second wave of the pandemic to ensure they have utilised all funding available for improving oxygen supplies.


  • Save the Children has spokespeople in London and Malawi available for interview. Please contact: d.stewart@savethechildren.org.uk / +44 (0)20 3763 0119 or 24 hrs: media@savethechildren.org.uk / +44 (0) 7831 650 409.
  • Save the Children exists to make sure every child can fulfil their potential and change the world for good. We stand side by side with children, supporters and partners to care for each child’s unique needs, empowering millions to stay safe, healthy and learning. In the UK and more than 100 countries across the globe, we help children survive and thrive, so they can go on to build a better future.

[i] https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases?country=IND~USA~GBR~CAN~DEU~FRA – viewed 22/02/21.

[ii] Usual needs are 3,800,000l. Additional covid needs are 9,800,000l.

[iii] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1093256/novel-coronavirus-2019ncov-deaths-worldwide-by-country/ - viewed 23/02/21

[iv] https://www.path.org/programs/market-dynamics/covid-19-oxygen-needs-tracker/ - viewed 22/02/21

[v] The taskforce brings together key organisations[v] that have been working to improve access to oxygen since the start of the pandemic including WHO, Unicef, Wellcome, UNITAID, the Global Fund, World Bank, CHAI, PATH and Save the Children. Building on these efforts, partners will focus on four key objectives as a part of an emergency response plan: measuring acute and longer-term oxygen needs in LMICs; connecting countries to financing partners for their assessed oxygen requirements; and supporting the procurement and supply of oxygen, along with related products and services. Other areas in the scope of the taskforce include addressing the need for innovative market-shaping interventions, as well as reinforcing advocacy efforts to highlight the importance of oxygen access in the COVID-19 response.