Afrox Managing Director Schalk Venter is confident there will be no shortages of medical oxygen in South Africa should the country be hit by a second wave of coronavirus (Covid-19). As the sole supplier of medical oxygen to the state hospitals and clinics, as well as to a number of privately-owned hospitals and clinics, Afrox has been at the forefront of the Covid-19 response in South Africa.
“Even at the peak in South Africa we never had any challenges on oxygen supply. So I don’t foresee a shortage of medical oxygen at all,” he tells gasworld. “At the peak of certain provinces, we experienced about twice the normal demand and we could supply up to five times. We are very well covered in terms of capacity.”
“At that five times level, if we got to that, it would obviously mean we would have to shift some oxygen production away from industrial to the healthcare and medical sectors. But if we got to that infection rate, the general economy would be closed up, so there would be an excess in any case.”
At the time of writing, South Africa reported 676,084 cases of Covid-19 – an increase of 1,745 cases on the previous day. 132 Covid-19-related deaths were also reported, bringing the total number to 16,866.
“Infection rates have come down from the peak and there’s also substantially less hospitalisations. The economy is open to a level where it is close to normal, except for maybe international travel which will open soon,” Venter explains.
“South Africa has had a particularly tough lockdown type approach from government which saw 50% of the economy go down in April. Covid-19 has really impacted everything on the economy. I think we will first see a reduction in volumes before we see an increase. I think we will have to plan for a little bit of a tougher economic environment for at least the next year.”
South Africa went into lockdown alert level 5 on 26th March for 35 days. Level 5 is the most restrictive of the alert levels, with only essential services permitted to operate. As the country’s only supplier of medical oxygen, Afrox was deemed an essential business by the South African Government.
“Afrox was granted essential supplier status because we supply medical oxygen and supply atmospheric gases to other essential service providers. We also supply LPG for household cooking and heating,” Venter highlights.
“During the pandemic, we supplied a number of bulk upgrades to hospitals. We also converted a number of industrial cylinders to medical cylinders for hospitals that did not have bulk tanks and were seeing high demand. We also converted liquid nitrogen road tankers to liquid oxygen tankers to be able to reach all of the hospitals. That was all a hive of activity at the time.”
Afrox also installed bulk tanks and vaporizers at a number of emergency field hospitals in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town as well as supplied oxygen generators and concentrators from its fleet of homecare products to assist medical staff to treat patients while the field hospitals were completed. In remote areas where some hospitals are not equipped with bulk tanks, Afrox installed second shifts on filling sites to cater for increased cylinder demand.
In March, as the pandemic was approaching South Africa and it;’ neighbouring countries Afrox undertook an end-to-end oxygen supply chain risk review and business continuity plans that included an in-depth review of its oxygen supply chain. This meant the company did not have to ramp up its oxygen production.
“We did a risk profile on demand versus supply. With our ASU footprint in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, we felt that we had, and have, enough coverage. We also have a number of filling sites as well for cylinder supply,” Venter says.
“What we also saw was the infection rate increasing in certain provinces at different times, so not all at the same time. First it was the Cape area, then Gauteng, then the Cape area, then KwaZulu Natal. Luckily, we did not see all four provinces all hitting the same high numbers at one time.”
With Covid-19 continuing to be a part of most of our lives, and second waves of the virus building momentum in different regions as countries attempt to balance safety with economic health, the need for adequate oxygen supply is still a factor in regional health provisions. As we conclude our discussion, however, Venter is quietly confident that Afrox has this need covered off, “If we look at the total ASU footprint versus total oxygen and medical demand, we probably could supply five to six times more. We are very well covered.”