In the backdrop of the pandemic, unscrupulous individuals have opted to profiteer from human misery. Over the past several weeks, reports have been emerging from across the nation – laying bare in savage detail how those affected by the coronavirus had been fleeced on every aspect of their treatment – from the provision of PPEs and oxygen cylinders to the purchase of pulse oximeters or lifesaving drugs, to securing an ICU bed in government and private hospitals and finally in the case of those succumbing to the virus, a spot for cremation or burial in one of the overcrowded cemeteries in megacities. In this theatre of human tragedy, a few workers in the healthcare sector were also party to such acts of black marketeering and hoarding of essential medical supplies. One might recall the case that emerged in late April when three men, including a doctor, were arrested in Chennai, on charges of selling Remdesivir at inflated prices. The drug which generally costs anywhere between Rs 3,500 to Rs 5,500 per vial was being sold for a whopping Rs 20,000 per vial to needy patients.
Several stockists and low-level players created an artificial shortage of Remdesivir across the state, which resulted in patients hailing from as far as Tiruchy making a beeline for purchasing the drug here in Chennai, even though each counter only has limited supplies per day. Tocilizumab, which is an immunosuppressive drug administered to critically ill COVID patients is yet another drug whose demand has skyrocketed over the past few weeks. The imported drug, which costs Rs 40,000 per vial, has been sold for a staggering Rs 1,60,000 as per recent accounts.
Chief Minister MK Stalin upon assuming office last week, intervened in time and directed his officials to ensure that life-saving drugs are supplied to every major town in Tamil Nadu so that people did not have to run from pillar to post. As a result of this, the Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation (TNMSC) is set to establish a counter in Coimbatore to sell drugs for treating COVID-19 (including Remdesivir). TNMSC has also ordered the provision of Tocilizumab to 19 private institutions last week, at the rate of Rs 33,956 per vial.
Horror stories of another kind have emerged from various pockets as well. Apart from the inflated prices of drugs, several spurious operators have been selling counterfeit COVID-19 drugs as well, which are packaged in a manner to avoid detection at first glance. There is also the bane of sellers hoarding oxygen cylinders and concentrators, even as people are gasping for breath. Cylinders that are usually sold for Rs 8,000 (for a 6.8 kg unit) are now being sold for Rs 30,000 whereas concentrators that retail for Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 are being sold for thrice the amount.
The cases of drugs being overpriced prompted the Telangana High Court this week to ask the state government to explain why the provisions of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 and/or the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 were not being invoked to regulate the prices of life-saving drugs essential to treat COVID-19. A similar stance was taken by the Delhi HC which rapped the state and the Centre on why a notification under the Essential Commodities Act has not been issued that would classify oxygen concentrators as essential commodities. As per the Act, the government is allowed to issue orders categorising any agricultural or manufactured good as an essential commodity, and subsequently offer guidelines on the price point at which such goods can be bought or sold.
There is a battery of Acts in place – the Essential Commodities Act; the Prevention of Black Marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, 1980; the Disaster Management Act, 2005; the Epidemic Diseases Act; and Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940; as well the provision about cheating as per the IPC. However, all these remain toothless unless the police and courts on their end ensure the quantum of punishment is high, and disposal of justice is swift, to deter miscreants from profiting off the misery of others.