From Obinna Odogwu, Awka
Managing director of the Anambra State Oxygen Production Plant, Dr. OnyekaChukwu Ibezim, has said that the oxygen plant established by Governor Willie Obiano before the outbreak of the dreaded virus was an act of foresight, which has helped tremendously in the management of COVID-19 pandemic in the state.
Ibezim, who is also the Special Adviser to the Governor on Indigenous Medicine and Herbal Practice, said the establishment has continued to supply free oxygen to government and privately-owned hospitals in the state as part of its contributions to the fight against the virus. In this interview with Daily Sun, he also spoke on other issues of concern. Excerpts:
With COVID-19 raising demand for oxygen., what is the situation in this oxygen plant in Anambra State?
Well, the oxygen plant is what we want to describe as an accident in history because by the time the idea was touted, there was no COVID, and nobody knew that there would be a pandemic like this. So, I want to describe the governor who muted this ideas as ‘a man who sees tomorrow’ because if you go down the line, if I tell you what we have done this period where oxygen is critical part of the management of COVID-19, it’s very great and we all thank God for it. So, this plant has been part of this pandemic in the treatment section, supplying oxygen to hospitals. There is a clear mandate from the governor that we should give oxygen freely to government hospitals; and then, the spill over to the private hospitals and we’ve sustained it. And as I am talking to you, I am sure you can hear the sound of the machines. We are producing and we are giving to hospitals. Of course, the teaching hospital (Amaku) where we reside, they have been having free supply of oxygen, the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, Nnewi which hitherto, before the pandemic has been sourcing their oxygen from somewhere, maybe outside the state, but because some other commercial oxygen plants both in the state and outside the state could not meet up, they folded. They are all forced to come here. And in the first wave of COVID-19, Anambra State pulled through because of the holistic management both in prevention aspect by the team; of course, the governor made me a member of COVID-19 state team. So, we fought it headlong and came out of it not until second wave which is more infectious. Here we are, we are also heating it headlong with this oxygen management. I will also want to say that oxygen administration is not for everybody’s use. It is a technical area. Of course, oxygen is administered in the hospital by experts because it has also its antecedent side effects. I hear people rushing to get oxygen. Some individuals have come here to get oxygen. They want to go and keep their cylinders in the home and all that. This is not the supply chain we are talking about. And we have gone a long way.
What was the daily average demand for oxygen in the heat of this COVID-19?
This plant produces about 200 cylinders, six cubic metres cylinders in a day. For the layman, the cylinders we are talking of is the big cylinder, not the small cylinders you see in ambulances and all that but the average cylinder. We could go on to produce close to 200, all things being equal. Why do I say all things being equal? The raw material for the production of oxygen is air. The air you breathe as you’re talking to me now contains 21 per cent of oxygen and 78 per cent nitrogen, etc. So, what we do is that the machine takes in this air and purifies it; getting out oxygen from just 21 per cent in the air; concentrating it to get as high as above 93 per cent to put into the cylinders under high pressure. So these are the technicalities. What does it mean? If the air is dusty, we are not talking of 21 per cent anymore; we are talking of lower with impurities and that is for the machine to go through. So, when we say we are producing so, so and so number, we say under standard condition hoping that we don’t have impurities. Just some weeks ago we had harmattan, we talk of climatic changes and all that. We are seeing it globally. Harmattan is lasting till February/March which never used to happen. And for you, it may just be harmattan is there but there are some people whom their raw materials depend on the air; like us. So, it affects our production coupled with the pandemic where there is a sudden surge in oxygen consumption. It becomes a very big challenge both to the machine and us. If it is a machine that you have to run for eight hours and give time like 3-4 hours to cool down; you need to run it over and over constantly with the breakdowns and all that. That needs to set up our technical team on ground to continue managing the machine, make it work. It is a pandemic that will go down. So, we are working like we had never worked before hoping that, of course, the vaccination is on now. So, we hope that with time we have what is called health immunity; that is, community immunity, and coupled with the people that suffered it and have developed some immunity. So, if there is any word more than triple we have been under pressure more than this, trying to produce and supply to hospitals. But on the average, one cubic metre is about 19.4 mills. So, we are talking of producing like, under normal condition, 20,000 mills of oxygen in a day. But with these challenges we are not able to reach that. We watch the weather; of course, when it is very sunny, very hot afternoon the pressure is very low. So, we do what we call early morning production and late night production. So, it’s quite dynamic. That’s why we work 24 hours. My staff here have their sleeping rooms, where they bathe, change and all that. Looking at the duty roasters over there, you can see how tight it is. Every eight hours they are on covering the 24 hours in a day. We work even on Sundays to meet up with the demand especially this period of pandemic. It’s been challenging but we’ve been living up to it for now.
In the course of your speech earlier, you said taking oxygen has side effects. Tell us about these side effects.
Of course, just like I told you that the air you’re breathing in now is 21 per cent oxygen and 78 per cent nitrogen and the rest, God who created us knows why He did like that. If he wanted pure oxygen, he would have made the air 100 per cent oxygen. So, those things are some technical things, dynamics, which means that you also need some other gases to balance up. It is not purely oxygen. But in some situations where oxygen concentration in your body drops, you need to give this kind of pure oxygen to normalize it; to bring it to par. Therefore, when it normalizes in the blood, and you continue giving, I think you’re giving what is called hyperbaric oxygen; everything will get foggy. Even the water we drink, we need enough water to live but I don’t think you need to over-drink water because anything taken in excess has side effects.
Even the paracetamol we take, the excess of it is not good. It has some toxic effects on the liver and all that. So, the administration of oxygen is purely a medical thing. It is not what any other person gives.
Would it be correct to say that in the course of the pandemic, sometimes you ran short of oxygen; you couldn’t meet your supplies?
We experience these shortages in any stage of the pandemic. There is no professor of COVID. It is an emerging disease. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Once the population is growing in a geometric progression, what does it mean? It means that people are leaving their natural abodes where they live and are intermingling with animals in the bush. More houses are built. Of course, you know of the Lassa fever, the rats in the bush are coming to live with us. All these are diseases carried by animals, rodents and all that. Recently, the World Health Organization has traced the origin of this to bats. Naturally, if the population was the way it was before, bats will go into their bush and will never come but we are pursuing them. Just like you live in Awka, you see places, four years ago, the development you see now wasn’t there. It’s astronomic. Who knows what will happen in the next two or three years. We expect more emerging diseases. So, when they come, what we do is to put heads together. Of course, in the COVID-19 team the governor constituted was not only made up of medical doctors. It was made up of community leaders, religious leaders, heads of security agencies and others because we need to handle the pandemic holistically. So, when it came to us as a challenge and all of a sudden the demand for oxygen shoot up, at that point, everything got shaky but we need to brace up ourselves.
You said that the government mandated the plant to supply all the primary health centres, teaching hospitals and private hospitals free oxygen. Why?
Every machine has its own capacity so on the day we have spill over; of course, we give to private hospitals free. Why we don’t use the word sell here. If we want to sell oxygen the way other commercial oxygen producers sell it, I don’t think the man on the street can afford it. So, what we do. We don’t sell. Many of the hospitals have approached us, asking ‘what can we give you so that you can increase production?’ I tell them that the production is limited by the machines. We are running on diesel. EEDC is not constant. This generator consumes about N150,000 every three or four days. It is verifiable. I run an open door policy here. No machine is without its running logistics. Somebody comes to work by 8am and supposed to close by 4pm but here we work 24 hours because of the pandemic. There is still some elements of stipends and allowances that they have to go with. They need to feed in the night. All these are free by all standards. During the pandemics some states are selling at 50,000 per cylinder while Anambra State sells N3,000 at that level which is not what we are talking now. The government said “let’s keep to that amount because the pandemic is now with us.” Some of us have experienced the COVID-19 and we have seen how bad it is to test positive. As a medical doctor, I experienced it myself. I came out of it. When you wear a shoe you know where it pinches you. Normally, a patient that needs oxygen may need one cylinder but if you are managing COVID-19, make sure that you have 10 cylinders in a day. Now, there are other challenges we have survived, you don’t know the part the government has played in the survival of the patient. Some time if you listen, I told the doctors, nurses, and healthcare givers to use oxygen mask instead of nasal prongs in oxygen administration so as to limit wastages.