Traders charging exorbitant amount, exceeding government-fixed limits
In what seems to be a repeat from last year, people involved with marketing and selling oxygen are capitalizing on the rapid increase in demand amid another wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and doubling its prices, with some even trebling the rates.
Many allege that a syndicate comprising importers and retailers is involved in the abnormal price hike despite an adequate supply in the market.
Hospitals are teeming with patients infected with Covid-19, which is why many infected with the virus have to rely on home treatment, and hence the dependence on oxygen cylinders to keep their saturation levels at bay.
The rising cases have the health authorities worried that they will soon run out of Intensive Care Units (ICUs) as most of them are already full, especially with younger patients this year.
According to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), eight government hospitals in Dhaka have 103 ICU beds and 92 of these have already been taken, while at the private hospitals, out of 267 available units, 210 are occupied by critically ill patients.
As a result, both offline and online traders are taking advantage of the situation and hiking oxygen cylinder prices beyond reasonable rates.
Visits to several online and offline platforms revealed that an oxygen cylinder with a storage capacity of storing 1.36 cubic metres was selling for Tk18,000-19,000 during the weeklong countrywide lockdown since the first week of April. Its price in Narayanganj and other districts was below Tk5,000 per piece.
Before the lockdown, it was selling for Tk7,000 apiece.
At the Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA) Bhaban in the capital, a wholesale and retail hub for medical equipment and products, the same was being sold for Tk16,000 per piece.
Its price will increase more in the coming days, as a stricter lockdown will be in effect, said Anwar Hossain Ripon, an oxygen cylinder trader.
The traders are shifting the blame on to cylinder importers for the price hike.
"Are we bringing oxygen cylinders home for unnecessary purposes? What ungodly joy do they take in hiking the prices of such emergency items?" asked Habib Ahsan, who bought a similar oxygen cylinder for his 70-year old mother.
According to the website of Linde Bangladesh, the country's largest medical oxygen supplier, a complete cylinder with 1,400 litre capacity is priced Tk 26,522, while others were selling it for Tk28,700 apiece.
Spectra Oxygen Ltd sells the same cylinder, but a Chinese version, for Tk 21,000-23,710. However, even this variant was sold by others for up to Tk 30,000 in various stories across the capital.
BMA President Dr Mostafa Jalal Mohiuddin said nobody had so far complained to him about the sudden price hike, but promised that he would take up the matter with the health ministry.
Oxygen galore on Facebook
Established e-commerce outlets, as well as newly-created pages on Facebook are also riding the demand wagon to sell oxygen cylinders, which happens to be in great demand online as well.
Oxygen Cylinder Home Service, a Facebook-based page that was created on April 1 earlier this month, was selling a 1.36 cubic metre oxygen cylinder set for Tk 14,500, but on April 7, the price jumped to Tk 18,500.
Priyojon, an online retailer for medical equipment, sold its version for Tk 18,000, and said that the price would not come down even after 20 days.
Not only purchases, but oxygen cylinder rental cost has also shot up to Tk 9,000-15,000, which was Tk 1,000-3,000 earlier.
Analysis of a year's worth of data from April last year up to March this year shows that a total of 1.06 million kilograms of empty oxygen cylinders were imported through various ports of the country. Of them, 261,707kg cylinders had a capacity of between 1.36-1.5 cubic metre.
Most of the cylinders were imported from China, while very few came from India and Britain.
However, importers declined to reveal the import data for April.
They told this correspondent that the price hike was in line with the global price hike.
The last importing date was on March 8 this year. A total of 42,000 kg weighted, each 10L capacity oxygen cylinders with valves were imported through Chittagong port from China.
Besides, 40,052kg of each 47L capacity were imported at the same day. After that there was no cylinder being imported until April 6.
If calculated on average 14kg weight, 3,000 pieces cylinders of each 10L capacity came last month which price was about Tk3,080-3,320 per cylinder.
The filling cost of oxygen for this cylinder for retailers is not much more than Tk100. If done by the oxygen production factory than the filling price is less than Tk100.
But after transport and other costs importers are selling only cylinder with filling up oxygen at more than Tk10,000 per piece without flow meter and regulator, nasal cannula or oxygen face mask and trolley.
This has an adverse effect in the retail market across the country and the retail level prices jumped to more than Tk18,500-28,700 this year until April 8.
However, the price of these flow meter with regulator, nasal cannula and trolley increased three times more.
Data shows, on July 14 last year, a total of 974 kg of oxygen cylinders with 1.5 cubic metre capacity was imported through Dhaka port at Tk624 per kg, and on July 18, 15,240 kg cylinders were imported at around Tk238 ($2.80) per kg,
On August 10, 5 types of 900 kg oxygen cylinder were imported at around Tk212 ($2.50) per kg,
A total of 26 types of 640 kg empty oxygen cylinder, three types of 12 kg, one type of 6 kg were imported at around Tk191-300 ($2.25-$3.53) per kg in the month of July last year, for use as medical oxygen cylinder.
12,600 Kg of large capacity 47L each oxygen cylinders were imported during the month at around Tk224($2.64) per kg.
On 14 May, 7,000 kg medical oxygen cylinders were imported at Tk122 ($1.44) per kg, and 30 June 160 kg cylinder imported at Tk137 ($1.62) per kg.
There are four medical oxygen-producing companies in Bangladesh – Bangladesh Industrial Gas Ltd (BIGL) under Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC); Spectra Oxygen Limited under Spectra Group; Linde Bangladesh Limited, a member of Germany's largest supplier of medical oxygen Linde; and Islam Oxygen Limited, which also imports oxygen cylinder.
Spectra and Linde Bangladesh are the major suppliers to all government and private hospitals with Spectra supplying gas cylinders, while Linde is supplying liquid gas in vacuum insulated evaporator (VIE) form.
When asked about their import quantity and the high prices, none of them were willing to disclose information to counter the allegations.
Hussain Billah, CEO of Islam Oxygen Ltd, said that the firm had to sell oxygen cylinders at certain prices as its prices had gone up both domestically and globally.
Md Mokhlesur Rahman Ripon, deputy general manager at Spectra Oxygen Limited, also declined to reveal import figures and their import cost.
Linde’s General Manager for HR Saiqa Mazed said that although demand had increased multifold, Linde had no shortage of oxygen either in cylinders or supply. However, its authority asked for written questions through email but did not reply to questions sent to it on April 6.
Industrial cylinder conversion
Some industrial organizations have also been seen to be converting cylinders meant for industrial gas, to contain oxygen, but even their 10 litre cylinders do not sell for less than Tk 10,000 apiece.
Essence Industrial Gases Ltd is one such company. Abu Taher Chowdhury, its managing director, said that it imported gas cylinders for industrial and other purposes, but was now converting them to be sold as oxygen cylinders.
When asked why prices were high despite the import prices of non-medical cylinders being much lower, he abruptly hung up.
Such cylinders are now for sale at various welding stores at Rampura, Malibagh, Mogbazar and other areas.
Two months ago, there was no oxygen cylinder at Nayem Enterprise, a cylinder retailer at Mogbazar. It now sells medical oxygen cylinders at high prices without offering any warranty.
Commander Khandaker Al Moin, director of the legal and media wing of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), said that RAB mobile courts would conduct drives to identify and nab individuals who sold substandard cylinders at excessive prices, and often filled them up with industrial oxygen instead of medical-grade oxygen.
Abul Bashar Mohammed Khurshid Alam, director general of DGHS, acknowledged having heard of such allegations.
"We have come to know about several unscrupulous traders taking advantage of those suffering from coronavirus and charging high prices of oxygen and oxygen cylinders. A monitoring team has already been formed, which will take legal action against those they find guilty," he also said.
However, he said industrial cylinder conversions were not under their purview, but they would monitor the situation nevertheless.
The DGHS DG urged everyone to provide them with information about such errant traders and importers who charge more than what the government had set.