KOLKATA, India — “Even in such calamity, people are out there to loot,” Debanjali Bhattacharya, a research fellow from the University of Calcutta, told Zenger News. She has been helping friends and strangers find oxygen and Covid-19 drugs like Remdesivir.
“We got a source of Remdesivir injections for one of our friend’s mother. We were demanded INR 1,20,000 ($1,635) for six vials.”
She immediately understood the source was a quack as the price was more than the regular amount of INR 3,500-4,000 ($47.5-54.5). Remdesivir was the first antiviral drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat Covid-19 patients requiring hospitalization.
“I have been receiving calls all the time for leads. Amidst all this, such issues are indeed disgusting. I recorded the call and informed Lal Bazaar. But they said they require more evidence.”
Lal Bazaar happens to be the headquarters of the Kolkata Police in India’s eastern state of West Bengal.
Reluctantly she dialed the number back. “The dealer did not reveal his name, but I sent the screenshots to Kasba Police Station [another branch of Kolkata Police] to file a general diary.”
“They nonchalantly asked us to get involved in our daily chores and not to think much about this.” There have been no updates on the case, she says.
Such scams have become rampant in India. With Covid-19 cases reaching new highs every day, it has become a challenge for patients and relatives to find required medical supplies.
Hospitals have been sending out messages about the shortage of beds, oxygen, and other medicinal items. And patients’ families are being advised to obtain the supplies on their own.
Bhattacharya said that one of her friends’ family members urgently needed Remdesivir and was asked for around INR 130,000 ($1,771) for two vials.
“The dealer was from one of the border areas of West Bengal. The friend got those vials, but they turned out to be fake, and eventually, the patient lost the battle.”
The crisis has forced people to turn to the black market or call dealers’ numbers circulating on social media circles to procure medicines and oxygen for loved ones. Several have fallen prey to scams and lost their money while waiting for life-saving medication.
“My friend’s entire family got infected, and we were running from pillar to post to get all the amenities,” Guneet Singh Rance told Zenger News from Indore. “We could not save them.”
“From oxygen cylinder to medicine, everything was being sold at an exponential rate. We couldn’t do anything about it,” Rance, a marketing analyst at Dineout, said.
Similar complaints from across the country have flooded social media platforms, where Indians have come together to help find beds and other medical supplies in the absence of any government direction.
“Modelling suggested falsely that India had reached herd immunity, encouraging complacency and insufficient preparation,” an article in Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, states.
“But a serosurvey by the Indian Council of Medical Research in January 2021 suggested that only 21 percent of the population had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19],” the article states.
“At times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic.”
The article also mentioned that at the federal level, India’s vaccination plan soon fell apart.
“Certain injections that I needed for my family were being sold at about 200 percent the normal rate,” Apoorv Nikhade, a Nagpur-based mechanical engineering student, told Zenger News.
Officials and administration across the country have now stepped in.
The Police Commissionerate of Lucknow of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh tweeted that they caught an accused who sold Remdesivir injection for more than the prescribed price.
The Lucknow police also arrested a few people selling oxygen cylinders in the black market.
“We were receiving complaints regarding one particular dealer,” Dharmendra Singh, In-charge, surveillance cell (DCP Central), Lucknow, told Zenger News in a brief call.
“A surveillance team was appointed to observe, and that’s how we got hold of the imposter. We confiscated 18 oxygen concentrators, three cylinders, and some mobile phones through which the imposter did the deals.”
The government and health care professionals are trying to educate people regarding the medicines and their urgency.
“Remdesivir only decreases viral load in people who need it,” Naresh Trehan, chairman of Medanta, a hospital in Gurugram near Delhi, told the press. “It should be given [to a patient] only after doctors have looked at the test results, symptoms, and comorbidities.”
People are storming social media to vent their frustration about the government’s lack of response and seek help and warn others about black marketers and scams.
“India needs to plan a unique distribution system for pharmaceutical #oxygen #covid_drugs #Remdisivir. Every medicine and medical device should be online stock from each medical store to distributor to manufacturer. #Stop_black_market” read a tweet.
People have also been asking the government to bring down prices of Covid-19 vaccines and create proper purchase channels for other medical supplies.
India is administering two vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin — priced at INR 600 ($8) and INR 1,200 ($16), respectively, in private hospitals.
While the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see a staggering 1 million deaths from Covid-19 by Aug. 1, 2021, it remains to be seen how India tackles the second wave of the pandemic and the black market that emerged out of it.
(Additional reporting provided by Praveen Pramod Tewari)
(Edited by Gaurab Dasgupta and Amrita Das)