MAGAZINE Voices Pushpesh Pant Anand Neelakantan Ravi Shankar Sathya Saran Gautam Chintamani Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev Buffet People Wellness Books Food Art & Culture Entertainment NEW DELHI may 23 2021 SUNDAY PAGES 12 The Unscrupulous Indian As individual efforts against the pandemic give India hope, a predator has arrived on the landscape to prey on its misery 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. By Ravi Shankar and Ayesha Singh I t 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 `500. It now sells for `1,500 to `2,000. Add priests, attendants and samagri, the bill to reach paradise comes to around `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 `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 `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 Vinod kumar.T Vinod kumar.T “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 (From top) Tokens being distributed for vaccination; a ‘No Stock’ displayed at a vaccination centre in Bengaluru States did not get smooth oxygen supply. Many pieces of oxygen equipment bought with PM Cares funds proved to be faulty. sold for `10,000 to `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 `29,000.” If the exploitation wasn’t bad enough, she had to fork out an additional `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 `4,000-5,000 are going for `35,000-40,000 in Bihar and `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 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 noncovid diagnostic centres would have helped.” Prof Dr Manish Khanna Chairperson, Indian Stem Cell Study Group Association 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 `300 was sold for `1,100 in a Kerala hospital’s pharmacy Private hospitals . have a well-developed tout network. They bribe health workers `10,000-13,000 to drive Covid traffic their way—it works out well since average treatment costs between `2 lakh and `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 `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 `10 lakh for a six-day stay In . a sting operation, a patient’s family in Jaipur caught the Dhanvantari Hospital authorities asking for `60,000 to `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 `650 for 10 tablets but they were selling it for `1,000. The storekeeper wanted `70,000 for a concentrator that costs around `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 Turn to page 2
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