Medical Oxygen Desperately Needed in Poorer Countries
At the onset of the global pandemic, wealthy countries were concerned with their lack of preparedness for a surge in patients entering hospitals with an infectious disease. The industrialized nations bought up the world's supply of masks, gowns and ventilators, leaving poorer countries in dangerously short supply, as EcoWatch reported at the time.
Now that the coronavirus is spreading rapidly through Africa, South Asia and Latin America, the shortage of medical equipment in developing countries is causing a desperate scramble for a simple life saving treatment: oxygen.
Many severe COVID patients struggle with hypoxia — radically low blood-oxygen levels — as the primary danger. Only pure oxygen in large quantities buys the time they need to recover, as was the case with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the UK who credited the "liters and liters of oxygen" he received for saving his life. Oxygen is also used for the treatment of respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, the single largest cause of death in children worldwide, according to The Associated Press.
As EcoWatch previously noted, the entire continent of Africa, for example, has fewer than 2,000 working ventilators in public hospitals across 41 African countries, the World Health Organization says, compared with more than 170,000 in the U.S.
In Congo, only 2 percent of health care facilities have oxygen; in Tanzania, it's 8 percent, and in Bangladesh, 7 percent, according to limited surveys for USAID, as The Associated Press reported.
The rising demand for oxygen is bringing out a stark global truth: even the right to breathe depends on money, according to The Associated Press. In much of the world, oxygen is expensive and hard to get, but in Europe and North America, hospitals treat oxygen as a fundamental need, like water and electricity. It is delivered in liquid form by tanker truck and piped directly to the beds of coronavirus patients. Running short of a resource that can be pulled from the air is unfathomable.
By contrast, in Guinea, a secondhand pickup truck carries cylinders over shoddy roads from the country's one source of medical-grade oxygen, a factory from the 1950s. Outside the capital, doctors say there is no oxygen to be found at all, which leaves people literally gasping for air, according to The Associated Press.
In Peru, where the healthcare system is woefully underfunded, oxygen on the black market has a 1,000 percent markup, making it entirely unaffordable for families that desperately need it to save their loved ones, according to The Washington Post.
And yet, there's no way to know if the oxygen is legitimate. Peru is rampant with counterfeit medical equipment and treatments for the coronavirus. A scarcity of parts and maintenance means several hospitals' oxygen plants have been out of service for years. Health Minister Víctor Zamora says Peru now faces a daily shortfall of 180 tons of oxygen. He has unveiled a $28 million package to import oxygen and build new plants, and is calling on the country's Congress to criminalize hoarding and speculation on medical supplies.
"Until that happens, we don't have a way to intervene," said Zamora to The Washington Post. "The only tool we have right now is our purchasing power. Only when we buy more and become more effective in distributing this essential medicine are we going to reduce this practice."
The World Health Organization has ramped up its efforts to supply oxygen to the neediest countries, hoping to raise $250 million to increase oxygen delivery. The World Bank and the African Union are contributing to the effort, and some medical charities are seeking donations for the cause, according to The New York Times.
"Oxygen is one of the most important interventions, (but) it's in very short supply," said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. and current CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, as The Associated Press reported.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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