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 lines of people desperate for oxygen amid a second wave of COVID-19.
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 oxygen cylinders line the street outside the factory, each bearing the name of the person who brought it.
“Yesterday, I stood in a long line. I’ve been here since 5am yesterday. I arrived late because when I came, there were people who had already spent two or three days here,” Yamil Antonio Suca said.
The 25-year-old student said that he hoped not to have to spend a second night sleeping rough, but did not expect to reach the front of the line by the end of the day.
Going home empty-handed was not an option.
“My father has COVID-19, he is 50 years old, he needs the oxygen,” Suca said.
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 Peruvian Minister of Health Pilar Mazzetti has denounced as “truly criminal.”
The second wave of COVID-19 has seen oxygen supplies run low in several South American nations and many Peruvian families say their loved ones died because they could not access any.
At El Callao, people were 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 were being cared for at home, with hospitals running short on beds.
As dawn broke, hawkers came around offering a humble breakfast of bread with avocado, or simply a coffee.
Miguel Angel, 22, said he was No. 124 in line.
“We have a member of the family, 89 years old, in a bad way, we do what we can for her,” Angel said.
He came with his cousin to take turns waiting in line.
Police officers were brought in to keep an eye on the hopeful buyers, prevent line-jumpers and thwart any merchants seeking to take advantage of the special price reserved for individual customers.
The mood among those waiting was somber, with many worried about their ill family members, yet there was little evidence of jostling as many a supportive hug was 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 it closes at 5pm.
“My mom is fragile, she’s 69,” Yulitza Torres, 46, said. “If we don’t bring oxygen she will die.”
Residents of Lima and seven departments of Peru are under a new lockdown until at least Feb. 14 as authorities try and brake the spread of the pandemic.
The nation of 33 million as of yesterday had recorded 1,142,716 cases and 41,181 deaths.
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