Covid-19 in India

India: Covid black market prospers as hospitals struggle with vanishing supplies

India is struggling to provide oxygen vital for the treatment of seriously ill Covid-19 patients
India is struggling to provide oxygen vital for the treatment of seriously ill Covid-19 patients NARINDER NANU AFP/File

As the number of Covid cases soar across India, police have begun cracking down on hoarders as frantic citizens turn to the black market for oxygen and drugs to save lives as hospitals ran out of supplies and beds.

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Physicians said the black market would flourish because of growing shortages and mounting desperation in this dark chapter of Indian history.

 “If we as an institution, as a state fail to help people then they would go the dark bazaar for oxygen or drugs to try and treat their loved ones at home,” said a pulmonologist from a government-run hospital in Delhi, which Thursday posted 25,986 fresh infections and 368 Covid deaths.

Faced with a do-or-die option, resident Rahul Nayyar too made a desperate beeline to what many were now calling India’s ‘dark bazaar.’

“A six-liter oxygen bottle is selling for 12,000, 15,000 and even 20,000 rupees (133-222 euros),” he said as the Delhi High Court cracked the whip, asking local authorities to stamp out profit-makers in India’s Covid-ravaged capital.

A banquet hall converted into a shelter for Covid-19 patients, in New Delhi, India, on April 28, 2021
A banquet hall converted into a shelter for Covid-19 patients, in New Delhi, India, on April 28, 2021 Prakash SINGH AFP

Patients have died outside hospitals, gasping for air, as they wait to be admitted. Some families said on social media that they were asked by hospitals to source their own cylinders.

Elsewhere, even those who managed to get into hospitals then reportedly died due to the facilities' low oxygen supplies.

Swati Maheshwari of the Fortis Hospital group blamed India’s wobbly healthcare service for setting in motion the deadly chain reaction.

“People are in panic. They are running from one hospital to another because they don’t know how to save lives,” the internal medicine specialist said.

“Why are we paying taxes… to get treated at home?” the visibly-upset physician retorted.

Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) wait to get admitted outside the casualty ward at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, amidst the spread of the disease in New Delhi, India, April 23, 2021.
Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) wait to get admitted outside the casualty ward at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, amidst the spread of the disease in New Delhi, India, April 23, 2021. REUTERS - DANISH SIDDIQUI

'Oxygen Express'

New Delhi is now planning to import 50,000 tonnes of oxygen and has set up a special train service called the "Oxygen Express" to transport cylinders to hard-hit states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address to the nation on Tuesday night that "all efforts are being made" to boost supplies to treat the ever-rising numbers of Covid patients.

Despite India's status as the biggest producer of generic drugs, it has been unable to meet the demand for antiviral medication such as remdesivir and favipiravir.

These too are being sold at exhorbitant prices on the black market.

Nilofar Roy was asked to pay 221 Euros for remdesivir by a facility in Kolkata city which claimed her hospitalized uncle had contracted Covid but a clinical test established he had not.

Anando Lal Banerjee, a former police chief of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, warned the problem of hoarding and illicit trade was far too complex. 

“If it was only a law and order issue then it could have been taken care off easily but it is now much beyond the simple matter of law enforcement,” Banerjee said.

“We as a community are natural hoarders and so the society has to fight this as one,” he said as India posted 379,257 new cases and 3,645 casualties, in the past 24 hours.

Grassroots help

With requests for beds and supplies reaching fever pitch on social media platforms, a network of activists has sprung into action to help those in trouble.

Climate activist Disha Ravi and YouTuber Kusha Kapila are among the dozens of young Indians who have sourced, compiled and shared information detailing the real-time availability of hospital beds, local helplines, pharmacy numbers and even food delivery services.

The government's chief scientific advisor K Vijay Raghavan admitted the government could have more to prepare for the second wave, in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper.

"There were major efforts by central and state governments in ramping up hospital and healthcare infrastructure during the first wave... But as that wave declined, so perhaps did the sense of urgency to get this completed," he said.

But "it is just not possible to amplify the capacities of a public health system within a year to a level that would be sufficient to cope with what we are seeing now," he added.

(with newswires)

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