COVID in India: Oxygen and drug shortage benefits the black market

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Covid-19 patient, Poonam Singha, fought for his life in a hospital with depleted drug supplies in Patna in eastern India, while his distraught son fought on the black market in search of remedies likely to to save her.

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

Like any shortage, synonymous with profit, a black market has been organized but also movements of solidarity through social networks.

Thirty-something Pranay Punj ran to all pharmacies in Patna looking for the antiviral drug Remdesivir, which had run out of supplies at the hospital, and without which her mother was in danger of dying.

A pharmacist ended up offering him to get the drug on the black market, he told AFP, for the astronomical sum of 100,000 rupees, or 30 times his usual price and three times the average monthly salary of a white collar worker in India.

His quest continued in vain when a distant relative, whose COVID-19 sick wife had just died, donated the four still sealed vials that were left to him.

Soon after, a phone call in the middle of the night informs her that the hospital is also running out of oxygen to treat her mother. Again, the young man moves heaven and earth to save her.

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

Oxygen, vital food

Equally appalling stories are rife across the country lately. Desperation leads people to beg on social media for drugs, hospital places, oxygen, tests, drugs.

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

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

Last weekend, Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal protested against “doctors who give unnecessary oxygen to patients.”

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

New Delhi now plans to import 50,000 tonnes of oxygen and charters a special “Oxygen Express” train to distribute cylinders in the most affected states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged Tuesday evening that “every effort is being made” to boost supply.

Despair in real time

The demands for places in hospitals and treatments are igniting social networks.

A network of activists and “influencers” took action to help people in difficulty.

Climate activist Disha Ravi and YouTuber Kusha Kapila are among dozens of leading Indian figures scrambling to find, compile and share information on the real-time availability of hospital beds, local helplines, numbers of stocked pharmacies and even food delivery services.

Youtuber Srishti Dixit, 28, told AFP she received a new request for help every 30 seconds, struggling to respond without delay.

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

A volunteer, she works late at night, editing and verifying 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.