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The Indian black market is chasing desperate victims of Covid-19



New Delhi – As part of the world’s worst coronavirus epidemic, few treasures are more desirable than an empty oxygen container. Indian hospitals desperately need metal cylinders to store and transport rescue gas while patients across the country gasp.

So a local charity reacted with outrage when a vendor doubled the price to nearly $ 200 each. The charity called police, who found what could be one of the most brazen, dangerous scams in the country, plagued by coronavirus and black market scams.

Police say the supplier – a company called Varsha Engineering, essentially scrap ̵

1; has repainted the fire extinguishers and sold them as oxygen boxes. The consequences can be deadly: Less healthy fire extinguishers can explode if filled with high-pressure oxygen.

“This man should be charged with murder,” said Mukesh Hanna, a volunteer at the charity. (He was playing with lives. “The owner, who is already in jail, could not be reached for comment.)

A second wave of coronavirus has shattered India’s medical system and undermined confidence in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s ability to heal its people and suppress the disease. It is widely believed that there are many more deaths than the thousands reported each day. The hospitals are full. Drugs, vaccines, oxygen and other supplies are depleted.

Pandemic profits fill the gap. Medicines, oxygen and other supplies are provided online or in silent phone calls. In many cases, sellers pursue the despair and grief of families.

“These people, the cybercriminals, were already there,” said Muktesh Chander, Delhi’s special police commissioner. “The moment I got that opportunity, they switched to this mode of operation.”

Citing predatory sales, a high court in New Delhi said this month that “the moral structure of society is fragmented.”

In the past month, New Delhi police have arrested more than 210 people on charges of fraud, hoarding, criminal conspiracy or fraud in connection with Covid-related fraud. Similarly, police in Uttar Pradesh arrested 160 people.

“I’ve seen all kinds of predators and all kinds of debauchery,” said Vikram Singh, a former police chief in Uttar Pradesh, “but I haven’t seen that level of predation and debauchery in my 36 years of career or in my life. “

Fraud and profit are the flip side of the huge online help system that has emerged to fill the gap left by the government. Benefactors across the country have flocked to connect those in need with life-saving resources.

The ad hoc system has limitations. Vital supplies such as oxygen are still stuck in bottlenecks and people continue to die after hospital depletion. Manufacturers of vaccines and pharmaceuticals can not cope. Politicians in some places threaten people who publicly plead for supplies.

This enables the black market with its exorbitant prices and bleak goods. Many people think they have no choice.

Rohit Shukla, a graduate student in New Delhi, said that after his grandmother died in late April in a neighboring state, an ambulance driver demanded $ 70 for three miles from the hospital to the cremation, more than 10 times the normal price. When the family arrived, the workers demanded $ 70 for firewood, which was to cost $ 7.

Demand and supply may be the cause of some price increases, Mr Shukla said, but suspected more than that.

“Everyone is trying to profit from this pandemic,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to the people.”

Some of the roughest examples can be found in the country’s difficult hospital system. Infections and deaths are thought to be many times more numerous than official figures show, and hospitals in India have full beds and people are dying from lack of oxygen or drugs.

The accusations of a doctor in Madhya Pradesh went viral. Doctor Sandjeev Kumravat said he had tried to stop a local ruling party activist in India from selling access to beds at the state hospital where he works. “We all know that going to bed is a big struggle,” Dr. Kumravat said in an interview. “State resources must be distributed fairly and cannot become the property of one person.”

The activist, named Abhai Visvakarma, disputed the allegations, but said he had asked local authorities to investigate. “I don’t know why the doctor blamed me,” he said in an interview.

A lively market for smuggled plasma has developed, which many doctors in India have used to treat patients with Covid-19. Police in the city of Noida, Uttar Pradesh, arrested two men on Wednesday on charges of selling plasma for up to $ 1,000 each. According to the police, one of the men asked for plasma donors for his own needs on social networks, after which he sold the plasma through an intermediary.

Young cyber trackers are trying to help by browsing social media sites to find fraudsters.

Heli Malvia, a university student, posted on Twitter advertising a drug, tocilizumab, an anti-inflammatory drug sometimes used to treat patients with Covid-19 with pneumonia that is difficult to find in India. The seller asked for $ 2,000 in advance. Ms Malvia noted the post as a possible fraud and received numerous reports, but they were from people desperate for the drug.

“People are facing this kind of helplessness these days,” she said.

Remdezivir, the antiviral drug, has been the focus of a number of scams. Police in New Delhi recently said they had arrested four people working in hospitals who wiped unused vials of remdezivir from dead patients and sold them for about $ 400. Before the drug became so scarce in India, hospitals charged about $ 65 for it.

The Surna family in Lucknow recently paid more than $ 1,400 to an intermediary for six doses of remdezivir. Lucky Surin, an event manager, said the family had little choice. Her mother and daughter-in-law were seriously ill. Her mother has since died.

“So, what shall we do?” Mrs. Surin asked. “If the doctor has prescribed it, then you should buy it.”

Dr Jaoud Hahn, the owner of the hospital, which prescribes the drug for Suriname but cannot provide it, said families can get it themselves and doctors can check the authenticity of the vials and labels.

Some fraudsters try to circumvent such precautions. Police in the western province of Gujarat this month found thousands of vials of counterfeit remdezivir during a bust. A tipster took them to a factory, where they found 3,371 vials filled with glucose, water and salt.

Many other doses have already been sold and may even be placed in patients’ bodies, Gujarat police said, posing a public health risk of unknown proportions.

Those who turn to the black market often know they are betting.

Anirud Singh Rathore, a 59-year-old cloth merchant in New Delhi, was desperately looking for remdezivir for his ailing wife, Sadna. He acquired two vials at a government-set price of about $ 70 each. He needed four more.

Through social media, he found a seller ready to part with four more vials for about five times the price. Two arrived first. When the second two were delivered, he noticed that the package was different from the first batch. They are made by different companies, the seller explained.

Rathores had their doubts, but the oxygen levels in Sadhna were falling and they were desperate. Mr Rathore said they gave the doses to the doctors who injected them, without being able to determine whether they were real or fake. On May 3, Mrs. Rathore died.

Mr Rathore filed a police report and one of the vendors was arrested, he said, but he was charged.

“I’m sorry that my wife would probably have been saved if these injections had been original,” he said, adding that police had sent the vials for testing.

“People are using the crisis period to their advantage,” Mr Rathore said. “It’s a moral crisis.”


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