India’s COVID-19 shortages spur black market for drugs, oxygen - GulfToday

India’s COVID-19 shortages spur black market for drugs, oxygen


A worker checks oxygen cylinders before they are delivered to different hospitals in Bengaluru, India, on Wednesday. Aijaz Rahi/AP

As Poonam Sinha fought for her life, her distraught son found himself fending off black marketeers for coronavirus drugs after the Indian hospital treating her ran out of supplies.

Dire medicine and oxygen shortages as India battles a ferocious new Covid-19 wave mean boom times for profit gougers, although some young volunteers are doing their best to help people on Twitter and Instagram.


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In the eastern city of Patna, Pranay Punj ran from one pharmacy to another in a frantic search for the antiviral medication remdesivir for his seriously ill mum.

This photo shows vials of the drug displayed. Picture used for illustrative purposes only. AFP

He finally located a pharmacist who said the drug could only be found on the black market, and offered to source it for an eye-popping 100,000 rupees ($1,340), over 30 times its usual price and three times the average monthly salary for an Indian white-collar worker.

Punj instead got the medicine from a distant relative whose wife had just died from the virus.

But the nightmare was only beginning.

In the middle of the night, he got a call informing him that the hospital had now exhausted its stock of oxygen, making his mother's condition even more precarious.

"Several hours later, we managed to procure one bed at (a) very high price in a private hospital and moved her there," he told AFP.

Oxygen supplies

Similar heart-rending scenes are unfolding across the country, with desperate people taking to social media to beg for beds, oxygen or medication.

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

Health workers move the body at a mortuary in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday. AP

In the northern city of Lucknow, Ahmed Abbas was charged 45,000 rupees for a 46-litre oxygen cylinder, nine times its normal price.

"They asked me to pay in advance and pick it (up) from them the next day," the 34-year-old told AFP.

The crisis has added to criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, already under fire for allowing huge religious gatherings and addressing crowded political rallies himself.

Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal last weekend hit out at "doctors giving patients unnecessary oxygen".

"Patients should only be given as much oxygen as they need," Goyal told reporters.

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.

Modi said in an address to the nation on Tuesday night that "all efforts are being made" to boost supplies.

"One solution to this crisis was to create a stockpile of antiviral drugs when cases were low, but that did not happen," said Raman Gaikwad, an infectious diseases specialist at Sahyadri Hospital in the western city of Pune.

Instead, remdesivir manufacturers told the Indian Express this week that government officials had ordered them to cease production in January because of a fall in infections.

Agence France-Presse


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