When only the rich can afford to breathe

The lives of thousands of respiratory patients are being placed in danger as continuous load-shedding is making access to medical oxygen increasingly difficult.

A representative from medical oxygen supplier Limitless Health,  Neil Forbes, has told us that it is only those with deep pockets who are likely to survive the crisis of lack of access to oxygen during load-shedding.

“Unfortunately, it is almost as if those who are moneyed will survive,” Forbes said on Friday as he expressed concern about patients using home-based oxygen machines and cylinders, which are dependent on electricity.

Limitless Health supplies medical oxygen and respiratory equipment, including oxygen concentrators, a device that filters oxygen from the ambient air to deliver it to a patient with breathing difficulties.

Forbes said the rolling blackouts are negatively affecting respiratory patients, a situation that has forced them to dig deeper into their pockets for survival.

Forbes said though there are inverters  –  a big box with a battery that supplies energy when the lights go out – sometimes there isn’t enough time to recharge them.

“There are people who are experiencing long hours without electricity because they have load-shedding that is playing around stage four and five. Then they also have to face load reductions implemented by their municipalities, so these inverters cannot fully charge.

“The patients are faced with fear of death, but we also try to make suggestions such as portable oxygen cylinders, which might turn out really expensive for someone who needs a greater flow most hours of the day. Cylinders usually last at least seven hours of the day,” said Forbes.

He said inverters cost between R7 000 and R10 000, while oxygen concentrators, which can also be used during load-shedding, range from R15 000 to R50 000.

In a case where a patient cannot afford these items, Forbes suggests they find a relative with better blackout schedules.

“Unfortunately, in such a case there is nothing anyone can do. They just need to be moved to a place with electricity. It would be a great idea to have a home generator,” he said.

Afrox head of communication Nolundi Rawana said cylinders would be the best second option for home-based patients as they can use them during loadshedding. “When people use home-based machines, it means they need a greater flow of oxygen. Because of the illness they would be facing at that time, cylinders would not do much but they are worth having around during these times.

“We supply all public hospitals and some of the private hospitals with respiratory equipment, not that we deal with the patients ourselves. So, there hasn’t been any backlog or panic buying of some sort that has been reported to us so far but every patient in that situation is worried about their life,” said Rawana.

Load-shedding spans three presidents, 14 CEOs

Load-shedding has spanned three presidents: Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Leadership insecurity at state-owned entity Eskom has not helped the situation. Fourteen people have held the position of Eskom CEO either on a permanent or interim basis since 2007.

Eskom’s history of load-shedding:

  • In early 2007, the first incident of national load-shedding occurred due to the inability to meet demand with the operational generation capacity. In January 2008, there was almost daily load-shedding for two weeks, leading to a government declaration of a national power emergency on January 25 2008. Things improved from May 2008.
  • In November 2014, a collapse of a coal storage silo at the Majuba power plant, which provides approximately 10% of South Africa’s electricity, saw the country plunged into darkness. In December that year the power utility started major stage 3 load-shedding.
  • The 2014 power cuts spilled into 2015 where the power utility implemented more than 80 days of load-shedding (calculated on the hours of load-shedding in the year).
  • In February 2019, Eskom implemented stage 4 load-shedding for the first time. That year alone, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) estimates that between R60-billion and R120-billion was wiped from the economy due to rolling blackouts.
  • In December 2019 the country experienced its first episode of the dreaded stage 6 load-shedding, and in March 2020 Eskom implemented stage 4 loadshedding. It was around this time that Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer told the media the primary reason for load-shedding was due to a lack of maintenance and neglect over the preceding 12 years, which resulted in an unpredictable and unreliable system.
  • Data from the CSIR shows that last year, load-shedding occurred for 1 169 hours, or 13% of the year.
  • The move to stage 6 power cuts this week marked a serious regression, and the worst blackouts since 2019. On Friday, Eskom said it had already spent R4-billion on diesel to keep the lights on this year and avoid moving to higher stages of load-shedding – double what it had budgeted for the whole year.

Explainer: Stage 1 = 1 000MW; Stage 2 = 2 000MW; Stage 3 = 3 000MW; Stage 4 = 4 000MW; Stage 5 = 5 000MW; Stage 6 = 6 000MW

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