Inside the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, plenty of unscrupulous schemers are perpetrating brazen, dangerous scams in a country awash with coronavirus-related fraud and black-market profiteering.
Few life-saving treasures are more coveted than an empty oxygen cylinder. India’s hospitals desperately need them to store and transport the lifesaving gas as patients across the country gasp for breath.
Police recently discovered that an “oxygen cylinder” supply company that more than doubled its price to nearly US$200 each was actually a scrapyard which was repainting much weaker fire extinguishers and selling the potentially lethal junk as oxygen cylinders.
Drugs, vaccines, oxygen, and other supplies are running out across the country and pandemic profiteers are filling every gap they find.
Many people feel they have no choice but to go to the black market, with its exorbitant prices and potentially harmful goods.
“These fraudsters were already around,” said Muktesh Chander, a special commissioner for the Delhi Police. “The moment they saw this opportunity they switched to it.”
Last week, police in the state of Uttar Pradesh accused scammers of stealing used funeral shrouds from corpses and selling them to newly grieving families as new.
Rohit Shukla, a graduate student in New Delhi, said that after his grandmother died, an ambulance driver demanded US$70 for the short ride from the hospital to the cremation ground, over 10 times the normal price. The family paid up and when they arrived, workers demanded US$70 for firewood that normally costs US$7.
“Everyone is trying to profit from this pandemic,” Shukla said. “I don’t know what has happened to people.”
Accusations by one doctor in Madhya Pradesh have gone viral. He discovered a local official of India’s governing party was selling access to unobtainable beds in a government hospital where he works.
Last week, police officers in Uttar Pradesh arrested two men they accused of selling plasma for up to US$1,000 per unit. The scammers had been begging for plasma donors for their own needs on social media, then selling the plasma through a middleman.
University student Helly Malviya saw a Twitter post advertising tocilizumab, an anti-inflammatory drug hard to find in India and sometimes used to treat Covid-19 patients with pneumonia. The seller wanted US$2,000 in advance. Malviya flagged the post as a possible scam and received a flurry of messages, all from people desperate to obtain the drug.
Officers in Uttar Pradesh discovered boxes of vials of fake remdesivir, an antiviral drug that many doctors in India are prescribing despite questions about its effectiveness.
Police in New Delhi recently said they had arrested four people working at medical facilities who pocketed unused vials of remdesivir from dead patients and sold them for about US$400 each. Before the drug became so scarce in India, hospitals were charging US$65 for it.
And police in the western state of Gujarat this month discovered thousands of vials of “remdesivir”.
A tipster led them to a factory where they recovered over 3,000 vials filled with glucose, water and salt.