COVID in India: Oxygen and Drug Shortages Benefit Black Market

A Covid-19 patient, Poonam Singha, fought for his life in a drug-depleted hospital in Patna in eastern India, while his distraught son fought on the black market in search of funds that could save her.

India, hit by a second wave of acute epidemic, is in dire need of medicine and oxygen for those most severely affected by COVID-19.

Like any scarcity that is synonymous with profit, a black market was orchestrated and solidarity movements were orchestrated through social media.

Thirty-year-old Pranai Poonj ran to all Patna pharmacies in search of the antiviral drug Remdesivir, the supply of which was exhausted in the hospital, and without which her mother was threatened with death.

In the end, the pharmacist offered him to buy the medicine on the black market, he told AFP, for an astronomical sum of Rs 100,000, 30 times his regular price and three times the average monthly salary of a white collar worker in India.

His search continued in vain when a distant relative whose sick wife from COVID-19 had just died donated the remaining four sealed vials to him.

Shortly thereafter, she received a call in the middle of the night and was told that the hospital did not have enough oxygen to treat her mother. Again, the young man moves heaven and earth to save her.

“A few hours later, we managed to get a bed at a (very) high price in a private hospital where we transferred it,” he adds.

Oxygen, a vital food

Lately, similar horror stories have been circulating throughout the country. Desperation drives people to beg on social media for drugs, hospital locations, oxygen, tests, and drugs.

In the northern city of Lucknow, 34-year-old Ahmed Abbas bought a 46-liter oxygen cylinder for Rs 45,000, nine times his regular price.

“I was asked to pay in advance and go pick it up the next day,” he told the AFP man.

Last weekend, Trade Minister Piyush Goyal spoke out against “doctors who give patients extra oxygen.”

“Patients should only be given the amount of oxygen they need,” Goyal told reporters.

New Delhi now plans to import 50,000 tons of oxygen and charter a dedicated Oxygen Express train to distribute cylinders in the hardest hit states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised on Tuesday night that “every effort is being made” to increase supplies.

Despair in real time

The demand for hospital beds and treatment is fueling social media.

A network of activists and “influencers” has taken action to help people in stranded situations.

Climate activist Disha Ravi and YouTuber Kusha Kapila are among dozens of leading Indian personalities who struggle to find, collect and share real-time information on the availability of hospital beds, local helplines, number of pharmacies, and even food delivery services.

YouTuber Srishti Dixit, 28, told AFP that every 30 seconds she received a new request for help and found it difficult to respond immediately.

In fact, the lists she shares with her 684,000 Instagram followers go out of date almost immediately as beds fill up and pharmacies sell their drugs at lightning speed.

A volunteer, she works late at night, editing and reviewing the information needed to respond to requests for help.

“I don’t always succeed, I’m sure there are hiccups (…), but I hope it helps people,” she explains.

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