Did Oxygen Outage Kill Covid Patients in Egypt? Government Says No

By Mona El-Naggar

With anger swelling over a video clip purporting to show patients dying in a hospital after their oxygen was cut off, the authorities offered a counternarrative.

Spraying disinfectant in a metro station in Cairo as a measure against Covid-19.
Spraying disinfectant in a metro station in Cairo as a measure against Covid-19.Credit...Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Mona El-Naggar

CAIRO — Hoping to quell growing outrage over a video from inside an Egyptian hospital purportedly showing a number of Covid-19 patients dying after an interruption in oxygen supply, the country’s authorities insisted that neither shortages nor negligence caused the deaths.

The wrenching footage, posted on social media this weekend, was shot on a cellphone by a visiting relative who appeared to be in a frantic state as he paced from bed to bed repeating the phrase “Everyone in the intensive care unit has died.”

On Sunday, the Ministry of Health released a statement confirming that four patients had died at El Husseineya Central Hospital, two and a half hours from Cairo, but offered a different narrative about what had happened.

“They died at different times; most of them were elderly people with chronic illnesses who suffered from complications as a result of their infection with the coronavirus, which led to the deterioration of their health and their death,” the statement read.

The statement added that there were at least a dozen other patients in the hospital, including newborns in incubators, who were linked to the same oxygen network and that none were affected, “confirming the lack of a connection between the deaths and allegations made about a shortage of oxygen.”

The video clip, less than a minute long, spread quickly and widely on social media and was broadcast on state-owned television talk shows, where officials are invited to comment. Asked why relatives were allowed into the isolation ward, the governor of Al Sharqiya, a region northeast of Cairo where the hospital is, said that “there was no visitation” and that the man who filmed inside had “stormed the ward” after learning about the death of his relative.

The New York Times could not independently confirm if an interruption or shortage of oxygen had occurred, but two witnesses reached by phone objected to the official narrative and described a moment of panic among hospital staff members that was followed by the sudden death of a number of patients. They also said that they had been allowed to visit for an hour every day between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., a time they used to help feed and change their sick relatives.

“The doctor reassured us that he was in a stable condition, his oxygen level was at 95, he was walking and talking, no complaints,” said Barakat Abdel Aziz, 50, speaking about his younger brother who died in the hospital that day. Mr. Abdel Aziz said he returned in the evening to drop off some food. “Shortly after, there was commotion all around; people were saying the gas had finished and security forces surrounded the hospital.”

Ahmed Mamdouh, the man who filmed the video, was at the hospital visiting his aunt, who also died.

“Yes, we’re not supposed to be around Covid patients, but we go in wearing a mask, and that’s what we do to take care of our relatives,” said Mr. Mamdouh, 33. “That day she was eating yogurt with apples and oranges, and beef kofta with rice.”

Mr. Mamdouh said he had been interrogated by security agencies for shooting the video. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong but refused to comment further about what he had seen inside the ward for what he said was fear of retribution.

No doctors present at the scene could be reached for comment. But one doctor who worked in an isolation unit at a different hospital in the same governorate and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media said his hospital had received a call from the Ministry of Health warning that “it was absolutely forbidden to film inside hospitals.”

Medical experts and analysts say there is no way to know exactly what happened because people are too scared to risk criticizing the government. In the early months of the crisis, doctors who complained about overstretched hospitals were thrown in jail.

“The government perceives the idea of saying there’s a shortage of anything like oxygen or PPE or breathing machines as sensitive information and a matter of national security,” said Ayman Sabae, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group. “Maybe there is no oxygen shortage, but then again the body that has been conducting the investigation is the ministry, which is also managing the hospitals, which is a reason for skepticism. There is a problem of credibility.”