In Mexico amid Covid pandemic, oxygen demand has led to crime

MEXICO CITY – Mexico continued to see near record rates of coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, and the huge demand for oxygen canisters has led to fraud, robbery and other crimes against families trying to look after relatives at home.

Mexico recorded a record 1,743 newly confirmed Covid deaths, bringing the total to over 152,000 and 7,165 new infections.

Hospitals in some parts of Mexico are nearly 90% full, forcing families to treat their relatives at home. But the oxygen tanks they rely on have been the subject of theft, kidnapping and fraud.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued to fight the virus in isolation at his home, and Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell said he was fine and had “only minimal symptoms”.

“He had a headache on Sunday, but apart from that he had no other symptom,” said López-Gatell.

While the president was cared for by a team of top doctors and the richest man in the country was quickly admitted to a top hospital, treatment remained difficult and dangerous for average Mexicans.

The country’s consumer protection agency chief Ricardo Sheffield reported Tuesday that hundreds of ads were found offering industrial oxygen cylinders – used by burners and welders – for medical purposes.

“These are stolen cylinders, so for industrial use they cannot be used to breathe,” Sheffield said. In other cases, scammers advertised tanks or oxygen concentrators at inflated prices or accepted deposits and then disappeared.

“They’re throwing your money away and they probably won’t deliver anything,” he said.

According to Sheffield, police have removed 700 Facebook pages and 100 Internet sites that were fraudulent or improper offers of oxygen equipment. There have been several armed robberies of oxygen bottles and the hijacking of trucks that deliver the canisters in Mexico in recent weeks.

And on Tuesday, Mexico City police arrested a couple who posed as sellers of disinfectant fluids and gels, the use of which has skyrocketed in the pandemic. As soon as a prospect showed up at the apartment they were using, the man and woman kidnapped the person and demanded a ransom. The police believe they were involved in at least three such crimes.

Sheffield said the government had an agreement with companies that produce oxygen to purify and certify their product so that up to 70% of what is normally used for industrial use could be used to treat patients instead .

He also said the northern states could start importing oxygen from the United States.

Most notably, he urged Mexicans who bought jerrycans as a precaution or who had stopped using them to hand them in so that others could use them, noting, “Returning a tank saves lives.”

While there are long lines at the oxygen refill ports, authorities have said the bigger problem is the lack of tanks to store the gas in.

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