As the more severe wave of COVID-19 rages across India, desperate people have turned to black market to secure lifesaving drugs and medical oxygen. As such, the black market is blooming with dealers hoarding vital supplies of medicines, creating an artificial shortage.
These dealers take advantage of the hapless people by charging exorbitant rates and fleecing poor patients. A cylinder of medical oxygen is sold at Rs 30,000-40,000 on the black market, up 10 times more than the actual cost of Rs 4,000. Activists say this kind of pandemic profiteering has aggravating patient distress and has also led to loss of lives. This comes despite India’s status as the “pharmacy of the world”.
Raman Gaikwad, an infectious diseases specialist at Sahyadri Hosiptal in Pune, told ABC News, that one solution to this crisis was to stockpile of antiviral drugs when cases were low, but that didn’t happen. However, reports highlight that government officials directed remdesivir manufacturers to cease production in January because of a fall in infections. Remdesivir was initially developed to treat hepatitis C and subsequently tested against Ebola. It shortens recovery time in adults with COVID-19. But its effectiveness against coronavirus has been disputed since a WHO-led trial found in October 2020 that it failed to improve COVID-19 survival rates.
Reports state that police have registered over 110 cases and arrested more than 100 for cheating people by promising to help with vital drugs and medical oxygen. Fifty-two other cases have been filed against black marketing and hoarding. Besides pharmaceuticals, private ambulance operators and hospitals have been charging exorbitant prices.
Earlier in the week, the Kerala High Court expressed concerns that private hospitals were looting patients. “We found unconscionable billings, Rs 22,000 for PPE kits. Look at the bills! We saw that the humble rice gruel is charged at Rs 1,300,” the court observed. “Imagine the plight of a citizen who earns Rs 1,000 and sees a bill of Rs 200-300,000. We are seeing infections rising rapidly. This is not an isolated case. Anyone can catch the infection now. You are looting people. Think about it, we have to intervene now.”
Amulya Nidhi, a public health expert from Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, told The Independent that people are stuck because ethics says they shouldn’t buy anything from the black market, but the desperate situation forces them to go for unethical practices. He said there is no limit to the price being asked for oxygen cylinders and remdesivir on the black market.
The central government had capped the price of remdesivir, with pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the drug dropped the price to between Rs 899 and Rs 3,490 per vial. However, there are various reports from people who have had to pay from Rs 40,000 to Rs 200,000 for the same. Public health officials have described this as “daylight robbery”. But families of COVID-19 patients say they have no option but to pay these ruthless marketers.