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Deflating India’s COVID black market boom

In the gloomy battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic, what has emerged as most reprehensible is the brazen attempt by profiteers in filling the gap following the desperation of many patients and families. With the second wave of infections and the rise in COVID-19 positive cases in India, the necessity for integral medicines, hospital beds and oxygen supplies has gone up incrementally. For example, we come across information about government helpline numbers being circulated widely. The Twitter handles of politicians and administrative executives often reiterate the dependability of these helplines. These helpline numbers ought to be not just ‘ray of hope’ delivery systems but also a clear demarcation between what is legal and officially authorised, and what is not.

Flourishing market

Remdesivir and tocilizumab have been the most sought after drugs ever since the pandemic set in. In July 2020 a racket of selling fake and spurious tocilizumab injections in Surat and Ahmedabad was unearthed by the Gujarat Food and Drugs Control Administration. Almost a year later, things do not seem to have improved. Recently, the police in Ahmedabad arrested a few people for preparing fake remdesivir vials for sale using a mixture of glucose and salt and affixing them with fake brand labels. In Mumbai’s drug black market, citizens have had to pay huge amounts ranging from ₹35,000 and ₹50,000 for remdesivir vials. In Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a racket to market oxygen cylinders in the black market was uncovered after raids on a godown. The Haryana police have registered at least 21 FIRs in connection with the blackmarketing of many of these medical essentials.

 

The desperate need for vital medical supplies has forced many hapless citizens to pay more than the market price to procure these medicines. There are reports of many having been tricked into believing fire extinguishers to be oxygen cylinders and saline water bottles to be remdesivir vials after parting with huge sums of money. However, clamping down on these cases and the culprits is dependent on having an efficient multi-dimensional preventive model rather than a control mechanism that functions much after the damage has been already done.

India is in the middle of its second year in the battle against the COVID-19 virus and the persistent challenges many citizens face in medical aid is a wake-up call to revisit the administrative mechanism and map its limitations. In India, the distribution of remdesivir in the States is mostly controlled by the local governments, while decisions about oxygen supplies to the States are predominantly decided by Union bodies. Yet, citizens have been approaching alien sources to procure medical supplies.

The pressures

A major reason behind why many are in the situation they are facing is because administrative organisations are being overwhelmed and helpline numbers inundated with calls and difficult to connect to. Even if citizens are fortunate enough to have their requests entered in records, they may not be able to procure the products they need due to the inadequacy of resources or probably not receiving a closure communication from helplines, which keeps them at a loose end without knowing where else to go and what else to do. This inaccessibility, a redundant and long communication process flow, and a delay in rendering responses are what have affected the reliability of these helplines as far as people are concerned.

Any market, black or otherwise, is a dynamic hemisphere which is consumer-driven. There is public demand for what the products these black markets or rackets have to offer and which is why they thrive. A patient and their attendants face challenges of resource availability and significant constraints of time within which they need a solution, resulting in tremendous mental pressures. Alleged hospital bed-booking scams, the unnecessary hoarding of COVID-19 essentials by the elite, and possible VIP culture practices have contributed to the erosion of trust. These elements have all combined to force the public to look elsewhere for sources beyond the probability of the government rendering them assistance.

Volunteers as a resource

Therefore, administrative mechanisms need to be expanded qualitatively and quantitatively. India is blessed with numerous volunteer organisations trying to tackle the various challenges of the pandemic. Unfortunately, in many instances, they do not enjoy governmental support. The state machinery needs to identify such groups, train them, optimise them and deploy them on a priority basis and ensure that there is no concentration of human resources in a single vertical. We need to operationalise technological knowledge in order to ease the communication processes which could reduce the burden on data entry operators and the management information systems to induce better responsive behaviour. We need an expert planning model which not only allocates the resources judiciously but also allows a follow-up of the entire process flow to ensure that there are no illegal deviations. In oversight, we need a strong, decentralised and independent vigilance system which promotes transparency in this desperate situation to ensure quality in the performance of administrative set-ups.

At the end of the day, what has been listed above ought to be matched with confidence-building mechanisms. It is only when the government’s performance is high and the administrative machinery is capable of large-scale affirmative outputs that the public will not have to look for third party resources. And with no dependency subsisting on them, profiteering would not have a dimension and play its game.

Jayesh Ranjan is in the Indian Administrative Service and works for the Government of Telangana. Amulya Anil is a law student at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 5:01:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/deflating-indias-covid-black-market-boom/article34629144.ece

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