India Covid-19 crisis sees scammers profit from desperation

Relatives and friends conned or overcharged as they seek scarce oxygen and medicines for infected loved ones

New Delhi resident Geeta Arora struck a deal with two men for an oxygen cylinder that she desperately wanted for her friend’s father, a Covid-19 patient who was gasping for breath after missing out on hospital.

Ms Arora paid the men 10,000 rupees ($153) in cash and drove to her friend’s home at night to deliver the life-saving gas.

Only then did she discover that she had been swindled and the “oxygen cylinder" was actually a fire extinguisher.

Her friend’s father died the next day, leaving Ms Arora distraught at the loss and shocked at being cheated as the pandemic forced people to rely on the illegal market for medicines and medical oxygen to save loved ones.

She complained to the police, who said they arrested the men on charges of cheating and endangering public safety and seized five more fire extinguishers that they had planned to sell.

They had no criminal history, police officer Dharambir Singh told The National.

India has been in the grip of a ferocious second wave of the pandemic since March, with the daily case increases breaking global records and overwhelming its creaking healthcare system.

More than 400,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported on Saturday, the highest single-day rise that also took the country’s total to nearly 20 million,

There were more than three million active cases that require constant medical care at home or in hospital.

Of more than 215,000 Covid-19 deaths in India since early 2020, almost 50,000 were last month.

The situation has left millions of families at the mercy of scammers, hoarders and even some unscrupulous doctors, pharmacists and nurses seeking to profit from tragedy.

Victims have reported paying 10 to 50 times the usual cost for medicine, medical oxygen, Covid-19 tests, ambulances and cremations.

Over the past three weeks, police across India have reported hundreds of arrests over illegal sales and profiteering from medical supplies.

Several regional courts ordered local governments to act against the black market in medicine and oxygen, and crackdown on profiteering and hoarding.

Pratik Sen, from Ghaziabad city near Delhi, said he searched for two days to find an oxygen cylinder for his elder brother, whose blood-oxygen levels were dipping by the hour.

Mr Sen finally found an agent outside a local hospital who agreed to sell him an empty cylinder for $600.

“He charged almost four times more but I had no other option. It was about life and death,” Mr Sen told The National.

“It took me another day to arrange the gas."

He paid 2,000 rupees to have the cylinder filled – about five times the normal rate – but considered himself fortunate.

Many desperate relatives post pleas for oxygen and drugs on social media, which criminals monitor to target them.

Police in New Delhi arrested a neurologist on Wednesday and recovered 70 vials of Remdesivir, an antiviral medication that is selling for 10 to 50 times its official retail price in India, even though its effectiveness in treating Covid-19 is still debated.

Police said the doctor used his connections and prescriptions to procure the drug from pharmacies and sold it to nearly 150 families through his agents.

They had searched for buyers on social media and offered the drug for $540 a vial – a mark-up of more than $500.

Several states have set fixed rates for ambulances and hearses carrying Covid-19 victims to crematoriums and cemeteries, and threatened anyone exceeding this with jail terms.

Police appealed to the public to report scammers and black marketeers.

“Public can complain on Delhi Police Covid-19 helpline about malpractices such as overcharging by ambulances; fake Covid-19 medicines; black marketing/hoarding of medicines, oxygen cylinders/concentrators or other medical equipment; harassment at cremation ground, etc,” a Delhi police officer tweeted on Saturday.

Updated: May 3, 2021 11:47 AM

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