India's Covid crisis spurs oxygen, drug black market

Mumbai, India: As Poonam Sinha struggled for her life, her distraught son found himself fending off coronavirus drug smugglers after the Indian hospital treating her ran out of supplies.

As India battles, a vicious new Covid-19 surge, dire medication, and oxygen shortages mean a boon for profiteers, though some young volunteers are doing their best to support people on Twitter and Instagram.

Pranay Punj dashed from pharmacy to pharmacy in the eastern city of Patna, looking for the antiviral drug remdesivir for his critically ill mother.

He eventually tracked down a pharmacist who said the drug could only be obtained on the black market and offered to source it for an eye-watering 100,000 rupees ($1,340), more than 30 times the normal price and three times the average monthly salary for an Indian white-collar worker.

Punj instead obtained the medication from a distant relative whose wife had recently died as a result of the virus.

But the nightmare was just getting started.

He received a phone call in the middle of the night telling him that the hospital had depleted its supply of oxygen, putting his mother's condition in even greater jeopardy.

Also read | India posts global Covid record with 315,000 daily cases

"Several hours later," he told AFP, "we managed to secure one bed at (a) very high price in a private hospital and moved her there."

Oxygen sources 

Across the country, similar heartbreaking scenes are unfolding, with desperate people taking to social media to beg for beds, oxygen, or medicine.

Despite its reputation as the "world's pharmacy," India, the world's largest manufacturer of generic drugs, has been unable to meet the demand for antiviral medications such as remdesivir and favipiravir.

Ahmed Abbas was paid 45,000 rupees for a 46-liter oxygen cylinder in the northern city of Lucknow, which is nine times the usual amount.

"They asked me to pay in advance and pick it (up) from them the next day," the 34-year-old told AFP.

The crisis has fueled criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has already been chastised for allowing large religious gatherings and speaking at packed political rallies himself.

Last weekend, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal slammed "doctors who give patients need less oxygen."

"Patients should only be given as much oxygen as they need," Goyal told reporters.

Also read | India reels from Covid 'storm' as Europe vows vaccine push

New Delhi is now preparing to import 50,000 tonnes of oxygen and has developed an "Oxygen Express" train service to transport cylinders to disaster-stricken states.

In a speech to the nation on Tuesday night, Modi said that "all efforts are being made" to increase supplies.

"One solution to this crisis was to create a stockpile of antiviral drugs when cases were low, but that did not happen," said Raman Gaikwad, an infectious diseases specialist at Sahyadri Hospital in the western city of Pune.

Instead, remdesivir manufacturers informed the Indian Express this week that government officials had instructed them to stop producing the drug in January due to a drop in infections.

Desperation in real-time

With calls for beds and supplies on social media sites hitting the fever pitch, a network of advocates and influencers has burst into action to assist those in need.

Disha Ravi, a climate activist, and YouTuber Kusha Kapila are among the hundreds of young Indians who have sourced, collected, and posted data on the real-time availability of hospital beds, local helplines, pharmacy numbers, and even food delivery services.

Srishti Dixit, a 28-year-old content developer, told AFP that she received a new request for assistance every 30 seconds, resulting in a massive backlog.

She works unpaid late into the night, editing and checking where to get what and amplifying demands for assistance.

However, the lists she shares with her 684,000 Instagram followers quickly become outdated as beds fill up and pharmacies run out of stock.

"I am not always successful, I am sure there are lapses... but hopefully it is helping people at least on an individual level", she said.

Also read | Oxygen runs short as India Covid hits new record

With cases at an alarming rate, India's government is leaving healthcare staff and concerned people to pick up the pieces.

"My friend is desperate... we have been trying for all the government helplines but none of them are responding (and) most of the oxygen suppliers have switched off their phones", said Zain Zaidi, sales manager at a Lucknow hotel.

"I just managed to find one supplier but he is charging 20,000 rupees. I have to buy it at any cost", the 34-year-old told AFP in a panicked voice, disconnecting the call.

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