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Black market scammers cash in on India’s coronavirus crisis

Desperate families being duped with fake medicines and promises of access to hospital beds and funeral services

Criminals are capitalising on the coronavirus crisis by peddling fake and sometimes nonexistent medical supplies to countless desperate people across India.

Nationwide shortages of drugs and oxygen amid soaring Covid-19 case rates have fuelled a black market boom as sellers “prey on the desperation and grief of families” in deals “brokered online or in hushed phone calls”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.  

“Sometimes the goods are fraudulent, and some are are potentially harmful,” adds the paper, which lists a string of examples including fire extinguishers being repainted and sold as oxygen canisters, risking explosions.

‘Moral fabric’

Police officers in the state of Uttar Pradesh last week arrested seven people accused of “stealing used funeral shrouds from bodies and selling them as new”, says the NYT. Reports of fraudsters hawking fake oxygen cylinders have also increased as India’s coronavirus crisis deepens

A New Delhi resident told The National that she had paid 10,000 rupees (£96) for “for an oxygen cylinder that she desperately wanted for her friend’s father, a Covid-19 patient who was gasping for breath after missing out on hospital”.

But after driving to her friend’s home “at night to deliver the life-saving gas”, the news site reports, the woman discovered that “she had been swindled and the ‘oxygen cylinder’ was actually a fire extinguisher”. Her friend’s father died the next day.

Local police subsequently arrested five men who reportedly had “five more fire extinguishers that they had planned to sell”.

In a separate case in the Indian capital,  police seized 532 fire extinguisher cylinders that had been repainted to look like oxygen cylinders by scammers in order to “sell them to needy people”, The Times of India reports.

Three men were arrested following the bust, which occurred after the head of an Indian NGO that provides free oxygen to Covid patients fell victim to the con and reported them to the authorities.

Such scams are potentially “deadly”, says the NYT, as “less-sturdy fire extinguishers might explode if filled with high-pressure oxygen”. 

Nationwide shortages of antiviral drugs have also forced many Indians to turn to “black market dealers” who charge up to “80% higher than the original price and insist the entire payment be made in advance”, Quartz reports.

Some of the scamsters take an advance but never deliver the promised drugs, while others deliver “dupes of the medicine that look identical to the real one”, says the news site.

Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Cipla last month issued a statement warning people to source their products only from “authorised stockists” in order to avoid falling victim to “unscrupulous persons”.

But despite efforts to crack down on the Covid crooks, many of the “more egregious examples” of the emerging black market “can be found in the country’s struggling hospital system”, says the NYT.

Accusations by a doctor in Madhya Pradesh that suggest officials are cashing in on hospital bed shortages “have gone viral”, the paper reports. Sanjeev Kumrawat claims “he tried to stop a local activist for India’s governing party from selling access to beds in a government hospital where he works”. 

“We all know that to get a bed is a big struggle all around,” Dr Kumrawat said. “Government resources are to be distributed equitably and can’t become the property of one person.” The activist, named as Abhay Vishwakarma, denies the allegation. 

Amid a flurry of similar claims, the High Court in New Delhi called on the government earlier this month to “provide the required medical facility for all persons suffering from the disease” in the capital, as legal news site Live Law reported at the time.

The “existing medical infrastructure in the state is completely exposed and has been put to test”, said the court, adding that increasing cases of hoarding and black marketing show that “the moral fabric of the society is dismembered”.

Underlining that bleak message, Vikram Singh, a former police chief in Uttar Pradesh, told the NYT that “I have seen all kinds of predators and all forms of depravity, but this level of predation and depravity I have not seen in the 36 years of my career or in my life”.

Duel waves

The second wave of Covid sweeping across India has pushed the total tally of cases to more than 20 million. The official death toll stands at more than a quarter of a million, but experts say the true fatality rate is almost certainly far higher. Exacerbating the crisis, the country was hit by Cyclone Tauktae on Monday, with around 200,000 people forced to flee their homes in the western state of Gujarat.

The cyclone made landfall a day after the authorities reported a further 311,170 new Covid infections, the lowest single-day rise in more than three weeks. However, daily deaths rose above 4,000 for the fourth time in a week. 

As the country’s “chronically underfunded, under-resourced healthcare system” is “pushed to the brink of collapse”, says The Guardian, Narendra Modi’s government “has faced an unprecedented and visceral wave of public anger”, with “tough questions” being asked about the prime minister’s “competence and leadership”.

“Modi’s image will depend on how the mass suffering is interpreted, and whether he can successfully deploy his skills at narrative shifting, but I think he will have to pay a price,” Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Centre for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University in the US, told the paper.

“This is too immense a period of suffering and it will be too hard to convince people that this was just down to ‘divine will’ or individual failures to wear a mask.”

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