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Meet the unscrupulous Indian, the pitted face of the COVID-19 pandemic

As individual efforts against the pandemic give India hope, a predator has arrived on the landscape to prey on its misery.

Published: 23rd May 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd May 2021 09:28 AM   |  A+A-

Tokens being distributed for vaccination

Tokens being distributed for vaccination (Photo | Vinod kumar.T, EPS)

It had been raining heavily in Unnao, an impoverished district in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh. The Ganga runs through it. The rain swelled the waters and turned the banks into slush. The river gave up the dead—hundreds of putrefying corpses of Covid-19 patients, which had been buried in graves barely three-foot deep. Their families were too poor to afford wood for their cremation.

Before Covid-19 struck Unnao, wood for a pyre cost around Rs 500. It now sells for Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000. Add priests, attendants and samagri, the bill to reach paradise comes to around Rs 10,000. Even as thousands of compassionate citizens struggle to help coronavirus victims get food, oxygen, medicines and hospital beds, a malevolent beast has risen to profit from horror. He blackmails families begging for oxygen by charging them astronomical prices. He sells empty cylinders and faulty oximeters. 

He exploits shortage of hospital beds by reserving them for a hefty fee or even makes fake bookings. He charges lakhs for a last ambulance ride. He scavenges on fear, hiking prices of life-saving drugs. He is a purveyor of fake medical reports for passengers who will most likely infect unsuspecting fellow travellers. He is the Unscrupulous Indian. After the Unlock 1.0 in June 2020, citizens let their guard down, ignoring virus protocol such as wearing masks, hand washing and keeping safe distance. Covid-19 fatigue freed them from home isolation in large numbers.

They crowded shopping malls, liquor shops, weddings and other social events. The second wave began. Now, death is on the black market.

C for Covid-19 

During this pandemic, the oxygen mafia has been operating with impunity. On April 25, Neha Arora lost her 35-year-old husband to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. She called three nearby hospitals frantically. No beds were available. An oxygen dealer agreed to sell her a seven-litre cylinder for a whopping Rs 95,000, almost four times its MRP. But her husband died the same night—the cylinder was an empty one. The Unscrupulous Indian had struck. This is not an isolated incident. A government hospital staffer in UP’s Shamli, too, sold an empty oxygen cylinder to a critically ill Covid-19 patient for Rs 10,000—the cost of a human life. As many as 638 empty oxygen cylinders were seized from a factory in Sahibabad, also in UP; they were to be sold for Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000.

A woman was propositioned by her neighbour to sleep with him in exchange for an oxygen cylinder for her dying father. Says Manas Mukul, a writer based in Lucknow, “A friend reached out to me for an oxygen cylinder around April 16-17. After searching for two days, we managed to get one for a steep Rs 29,000.” If the exploitation wasn’t bad enough, she had to fork out an additional Rs 25,000 to have it refilled. “The government should have set up oxygen generation plants, imported vaccines in bulk to vaccinate people aggressively and focused on funding clinical research on transmission of variants and vaccine efficacy,” says Dr Radha Rangarajan,  Chief Scientific Officer of Delhi-based HealthCube Diagnostics. Oxygen cylinders that cost Rs 4,000-5,000 are going for Rs 35,000-40,000 in Bihar and Rs 25,000 in West Bengal.

C for Covid Corruption 
The Unscrupulous Indian is the pitted face of the pandemic. Hanumanth Rao, ACP, Cyberabad Police in-charge of the Covid Control Room, Telangana, says, “The source of the medical sales is the starting point for a black market operation. Either the distributor takes the drugs to various hospitals or the hospital staff/pharmacy workers sell it on the black market.” Their modus operandi is uniform across states. Dishonest health workers frighten a patient with exaggerated claims of medicine/injection shortage. He or she is advised to buy them at twice or thrice the price from a pharmacy the hospital has tied up with. “The helpless families have no choice but to agree. The hospital gets a cut,” shares Rao.

Taking advantage of medical shortages and the desperation of affected families, many pharmacies have inflated the prices of oximeters, oxygen cylinders, and life-saving drugs. Precious pulse oximeters cost a 100 percent more—even for unbranded Chinese equipment, which do not carry MRP tags. Hospital pharmacies are where private corruption starts—drugs such as ulinastatin and enoxaparin sodium injections are three times the official tab. Respiratory exercisers have witnessed a four-fold rise in prices. A high concentration oxygen mask worth Rs 300 was sold for Rs 1,100 in a Kerala hospital’s pharmacy. Private hospitals have a well-developed tout network.

a ‘No Stock’ displayed at a vaccination centre in Bengaluru

They bribe health workers Rs 10,000-13,000 to drive Covid traffic their way—it works out well since average treatment costs between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 6 lakh. In Odisha, in spite of the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana that covers the cost of Covid-19 treatment, many hospitals are wary of admitting patients. An ICU bed costs Rs 10,000 a day in some Chennai hospitals. During the first wave, the Tamil Nadu government had imposed a degree of control over private hospitals. Now these institutions are capitalising on the weakness of the overstretched government healthcare system.

A patient in Chrompet recalls a private hospital charging him Rs 10 lakh for a six-day stay. In a sting operation, a patient’s family in Jaipur caught the Dhanvantari Hospital authorities asking for Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 for treatment each day. Mukul recalls going to buy Fabiflu in Lucknow, “The medical store was hiking the prices right in front of everyone. The printed MRP was Rs 650 for 10 tablets but they were selling it for Rs 1,000. The storekeeper wanted Rs 70,000 for a concentrator that costs around Rs 30,000. And they delivered a malfunctioning piece.” This highlights government’s laxity. “The Centre should have learnt lessons from last year’s lockdown and immediately clamped down on corruption in healthcare. Madhya Pradesh alone has over nine lakh migrants who should have been given a relief package especially when MGNREGA couldn’t give them jobs,” says Ishan Santwani, a community worker and student in Gwalior. Technology could leverage better, feel people like Ashwini Saranya from Mandya, Karnataka, who lost her 32-year-old husband Aravind to Covid this month.

She feels that a website on the lines of IRCTC where anyone in India can log in from anywhere to find out where he or she can get medicines, beds, etc locally and effectively within minutes is necessary. Saranya says, “Techies and NGOs are working in silos which is resulting in chaos over sharing handles like #HelpNeeded posts. A single website or app that integrates all information could have saved Aravind.” 

C for Covid Contraband
The thriving fake industry is the parallel Covid economy. Bengaluru City Police arrested Sampath Lal, a travel agent, for peddling fake Covid-19 negative certificates for train passengers without an RT-PCR test. The medical mercenary sold the reports for Rs 3,000-4,000 each, imperilling fellow travellers and further escalating the virus spread. Cheap imitations of essential medical items, such as N95 masks and PPE kits, are flogged in the open market in Kochi, thereby compromising all preventive efforts. The irony is bizarre. “After the state government made new regulations and capped the price of essential medical items, the likelihood of fakes hitting the market has increased.

Frontline health workers who wear fake safety gear, could spread infections and increase mortalities,” says Dr P Gopikumar, Kerala secretary of the Indian Medical Association. Fraudulent medical prescriptions are available for cash. J Surender Reddy, Deputy Commissioner of Police, SOT, Rachakonda Police Commissionerate, Hyderabad, clarifies, “Retailers posing as patients’ families get their hands on fake test reports and prescriptions. They use these to procure Remdesivir injections in large quantities, which they sell in black for Rs 25,000 to Rs 36,000 per vial.” Charvi Khandelwal, a recovered patient in Bengaluru, says that the government should’ve focused on prevention with packages designed by medical experts, comprising basic fitness exercises, nutritious food and vitamins.

People throng the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in
Chennai to buy remdesivir ,R.Satish Babu

C for Covid Callousness
Greed is the hallmark of the Unscrupulous Indian. A Delhi ambulance owner charged 85-year-old retired school teacher Shalini Vig Rs 75,000 to transport her critically ill 90-year-old husband to a hospital just four km away. Another operator was arrested for billing a patient’s kin Rs 1.2 lakh. In the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, where the highest number of cases is currently being registered, a Kakinada ambulance owner was demanding Rs 25,000, and his competitor Rs 15,000, to transport deceased Covid-19 patients to the burial ground. Pathos rules the ethos—80-year-old Samayam Raghavamma who lived in an old-age home died of the coronavirus in the Kakinada Government General Hospital.

Since government ambulances only operate within city limits, a private vehicle was arranged. After much pleading, its owner settled for Rs 15,000. The normal rate is Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000. The list of ingenious villains posing as Good Samaritans is long. Alleged Covid racketeer Manish Sarkar circulated his phone number on social media offering beds in Bengaluru. He reportedly cheated at least 17 desperate families by offering them an imaginary bed at Rs 27,000 each. One victim was Stephan Raj, who was desperately seeking an ICU bed for his Covid-positive and heavily symptomatic parents. Though he paid Sarkar, they did not get the promised beds. Raj’s mother passed away on April 24, and his father the next day. “If the government wasn’t in denial and concentrated on real action and not PR, we wouldn’t have been in this mess,” says Delhi-based social activist and environmentalist Bhavreen Kandhari. 

C for Covid Children
Messages have begun to appear on Twitter and FB, offering Covid orphans for adoption in UP. Activists fear that the posts could be by child traffickers. Advocate Prabhsahay Kaur, who represents child rights NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, knows of many instances where both parents died, leaving their young children orphaned and destitute. In many such situations, relatives have refused to care for the children unless there is money in it. Kaur remembers, “A 17-year-old boy lost both his parents to Covid. His relatives refused to help until they saw the property papers! A neighbour is caring for him now. It’s sickening.” Abandonment and greed go hand in hand, exposing the callousness in the family system. Sumesh Jain from Agra fostered 13-year-old Arya (name changed) for three months before the Child Rights Commission ordered a close relative to take the girl. The relative had vanished from the scene although he was the legal guardian and guardian of the estate according to her parents’ will. “The child is in shock, being old enough to understand rejection. It will leave an indelible impact on her mind,” regrets Jain.  

Funeral pyres of Covid-19 victims

C for Covid Capitalism
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological concept that categorises the order of human needs that drive personal growth—self-esteem above safety, love and belonging above physiological needs. Though there are flaws in the theory, in an outlier situation like now, hoarding has become a fundamental need. Grocers are inflating food prices and creating artificial scarcity, encouraging stocking up of essential items. A natural disaster like the pandemic is the petridish of ‘disaster capitalism’—a trend that offers free-market “solutions”, which perpetuate existing disparities.

Indian e-commerce companies have used the lockdown to consolidate their market dominance at the expense of neighbourhood grocers, pushcart vendors and local traders. There are now concerns that private hospitals in Chennai are violating ICMR protocols to administer remdesivir. A 28-year-old IT professional in Vadapalani had a CT severity score of 16. She was asked to buy nine vials of the drug even before admission in a private city hospital. It cost her family Rs 15,000 a vial on the black market while the Tamil Nadu government sells six vials for less than Rs 10,000. Dr TS Selvavinayagam, Director, Public Health and Preventive Medicine, insists that remdesivir is not a mandatory drug for Covid patients. “The guidelines are very clear. It is meant for restricted use for patients on oxygen support.” 

C for Covid Crowds
Elections and the Hardwar Kumbh Mela became corona super-spreaders. The Madras High Court accused the BJP-compliant Election Commission of murder in West Bengal. A former Uttarakhand chief minister explained away the pandemic because “the virus too has a right to live”. “It (the Kumbh) welcomed people to their deathbeds,” according to Dr Faizan Mustafa, Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR University, Hyderabad. “Not a single testing lab was set up by the government in Hardwar,” he says on his YouTube series, Legal Awareness. 

“Heavy fines should have been imposed for not wearing masks. Isolation should have been enforced on all senior citizens travelling anywhere in the country,” says Delhi-based social worker and psychologist Promita Dewan. Paradoxically, the cure is spreading infection. Last Sunday night, police tried to evacuate the pavements around Chennai’s Nehru Indoor Stadium where people had gathered during night curfew. Remdesivir injections were to be sold in the morning. There was no social distancing. Government counters selling the medicine are potential hotspots. Caregivers of patients spent long hours jostling with nary a thought to distancing or proper masking, hoping to be among the lucky 50 to get the prescribed six remdesivir vials—only 300 are sold a day. Police personnel on duty are deeply concerned about the risk of infection. These are caregivers and family members of positive patients. So almost 80 percent of them must be infected. 

Even though the lockdowns have emptied malls, restaurants and cinemas, hospitals, clinics and vaccination centres have ironically become viral zones. Rajesh Kumar in Gurugram lost his 28-year-old son to Covid-19. After the government reduced the vaccination age limit, he urged his son to register. The son tried several vaccine centres before getting a slot at a small centre in a village. The place was overcrowded. Says Kumar, “Some people had their masks up, while others had masks dangling from their chins. After spending four hours there, my son returned home without his jab since his registration did not show up on the computer.” In two days, Kumar’s son developed severe body ache and fever. His oxygen level dropped. No hospital bed was available.

Family member with PPE kits waiting to perform the last rites in Bengaluru

The Kumars made hundreds of calls to friends and relatives. Nobody had an oxygen cylinder. “My son’s condition deteriorated. Finally, using some influence, we got an ICU bed. But it was too late,” laments Kumar. With this kind of mismanagement, disasters are waiting to happen. People throng vaccination centres in large numbers to get their jabs, and many of them expose themselves to infection. “The government should have decentralised vaccination by distributing vials to RWAs, individual colonies, condominiums, clubs, companies and corporations, so that people are vaccinated in smaller groups,” feels Gurugram-based sociologist and researcher Sumita Arora.    

C for Covid Confusion
Now that the government has disowned the drug’s efficacy, caregivers, survivors and doctors are angry. “The artificial demand being created by private hospitals are leading to black marketing,” complains a medical officer in Chennai. A patient’s attendant confesses, “I stood in a queue for two days but didn’t get the injections. But some touts offered me remdesivir for Rs 1 lakh per vial.” In the Hyderabad Commissionerate, 40 such touts were apprehended. Radhakishan Rao, DCP, Task Force, Hyderabad City Police, adds, “There were two minor boys among the culprits.” Says a doctor in a private Delhi hospital, “We risk our lives every day. But the government is clueless because it disregards scientific experts and experienced doctors. Its only doctors are spin doctors trying to save its image.

Had it revealed the truth about remdesivir, so many people wouldn’t have run through their savings and black marketers wouldn’t have made a killing.” The same goes for plasma treatment, which has been found unnecessary. Touts in Delhi had been contacting impoverished recovered patients to sell plasma for Rs 3 lakh or more. “The donor hardly gets Rs 25,000,” says a Delhi Police officer. 

In 2013, Swami Sobhan Sarkar, a local sadhu in Unnao, dreamt that King Rao Ram Baksh Singh, who had participated in the 1857 Mutiny, had buried 10,000 tonnes of gold under his now ruined fort. Sarkar managed to persuade Union Congress Minister Charan Das Mahant to force the ASI to become gold diggers. At around 2 pm on October 18, digging began but the search was abandoned many days later after no signs of treasure were found. The current MP is another godman, Sakshi Ji Maharaj. The tragic story of Unnao, and India itself is that, buried under the rain-sodden corpses on the banks of the holy Ganga is only fool’s gold. And the Unscrupulous Indian is the deadly alchemist who is busy turning misery into gold.

HOW IT HAPPENED

The government disregarded medical advice about Wave 2 and was not ready for it
No preventive measures were envisaged
No coordinated national website with information on Covid-19 supplies was set up by the Centre
Red tape held up foreign aid and vaccines at airports and labs. The Central laboratory delayed Sputnik safety tests.
States did not get smooth oxygen supply. Many pieces of oxygen equipment bought with PM Cares funds proved to be faulty.
Ignorance on remdesivir and plasma treatment led to black market sales

“Non-oxygen beds should have been converted into oxygen beds. Having separate covid and non-covid diagnostic centres would have helped.”  
Prof Dr Manish Khanna
Chairperson, Indian Stem Cell Study Group Association

“A 17-year-old boy lost both parents to Covid. His relatives refused to help until they saw the property papers! A neighbour is caring for him now. It’s sickening.”
Prabhsahay Kaur 
Advocate, who represents child rights NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Delhi

“The government could have focused on extensive use of tele-guidance by trained medical personnel for the asymptomatic, mild and moderately sick people to avoid panic and misuse/abuse of drugs.” 
Dr Lalitha Reddy
Founder, ForMen ForKids, a men's wellness entity, Hyderabad

“If the government wasn’t in denial and concentrated on real action besides PR, we wouldn’t have been in this mess.”
Bhavreen Kandhari Social activist and environmentalist, Delhi

“The government should have set up oxygen generation plants, imported  vaccines in bulk and focused on funding clinical research on transmission of variants and vaccine efficacy"
Dr Radha Rangarajan 
Chief Scientific Officer, HealthCube Diagnostics, Bengaluru

LOOT LIST

Oxygen Mafia Oxygen cylinders that normally cost around Rs 3,000-4,000 were sold for Rs 35,000 or more. Empty cylinders peddled. Chinese Oximeters without MRP tags hawked at arbitrary prices. Hoarding created artificial shortages.

Private Plunder Private hospitals overcharged patients. Just a bed in a Chennai hospital cost Rs 10,000 upward. They created panic about medicine and remdesivir shortages. They saved money by not setting up oxygen plants. They forced poor patients under free government schemes to pay unaffordable amounts. Cost of ICU beds was hiked. Beds were ‘booked’ in advance in connivance with hospital staff for excessive prices. Both hospitals and the administration dismantled health infrastructure set up during the first wave and did not replenish stocks of kits, beds and medicines.

Alarming Ambulances Private ambulances that normally charge Rs 1,000-4,000 according to range overcharged people for Rs 1 lakh and more to ferry both patients and corpses. Hastily converted ambulances lacked licences, proper equipment or trained workers.

Fraud Raj Until now, remsedivir injections whose government price was Rs 10,000 for six vials went for Rs 15,000 per vial—and in some instances even Rs 1 lakh for one vial. Fake PPE kits and N-19 masks were sold on the black market, endangering health workers and people. Medical shops raised prices of essential drugs 10-fold. Fake RT-PCR certificates and prescriptions were sold for hefty sums.

Tout Terror Private hospitals had touts looking for Covid-19 patients in coordination with their staff. Touts sold everything from oxygen cylinders and remdesivir to plasma for exorbitant profit.

Cremation Crisis Cost of wood and materials went up hundred-fold forcing relatives to fling bodies into rivers. With families refusing to cremate their dead, volunteers did their job, resulting in their own deaths.

With inputs from Noor Anand Chawla (Delhi), Manju Latha Kalanidhi (Hyderabad), Donita Jose, Mayank Tiwari, Pinto Deepak (Telangana), Guru Srikanth, Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh), Manju Shettar, Iffath Fathima (Bengaluru, Karnataka), Sudarshan Maharana (Bhubaneswar), Anuja Susan Varghese, Ajay Kanth (Kochi).

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