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Profiteering during a pandemic

Icon for ambulance, medical ,car, transport

Icon for ambulance, medical ,car, transport  

Soon after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, prices of essential items shot up in several places across the country. The sudden demand for masks saw even an ordinary mask being sold at ₹150 a piece, though it turned cheaper weeks later when there was mass production.

Slowly, as cases grew, reports were published of private hospitals overcharging patients, even after State governments capped COVID-19 treatment charges. In some private hospitals, patients were asked to pay lakhs even before being allotted beds. Even doctors working in these hospitals reported that they thought their patients were being fleeced. Compassion was nowhere to be seen. All that mattered was making money. For instance, after a patient’s family lodged a complaint with the West Bengal Clinical Establishment Regulatory Commission that the patient had been overcharged, the Commission directed the private hospital where she had been admitted to refund ₹1.4 lakh of the ₹1.84 lakh charged for Personal Protection Equipment. The hospital was charging ₹7,000 a day for the cost of PPEs used by the doctors against the cap of ₹1,000 fixed by the West Bengal government. Not all patients who have been overcharged have been able to file complaints and received refunds, however.

The cost of medicines too shot up. In Srinagar, Remdesivir was being sold for as much as ₹36,000 against the normal rate of ₹6,000. The poor could not afford the medicine and looked to government agencies for help. In some places, those who could afford it purchased more than the required quantity leading to shortage. In Mumbai, seven persons were arrested for selling a vial of injection of Remdesivir at ₹30,000 against the actual price of ₹5,400.

Ambulance owners too chose to make good money in these pandemic times. For transporting patients up to a distance of about 10-15 km, they charged as much as ₹30,000 in Mumbai. For going to a hospital just 7 km away, a patient had to spend ₹8,000 in Pune. In Kolkata, patients were charged as much as ₹8,000 for a distance of 5 km, while in Hyderabad, transportation charges ranged between ₹5,000 and ₹10,000 for a distance up to 10 km.

During the lockdown, poor migrants who wanted to go home had to spend large amounts to hire vehicles. Buses operated by private agencies charged exorbitant fares. Most migrants could not afford these rates and had to trudge hundreds and hundreds of kilometres on foot. Many met with accidents and lost their lives in the process.

Similar scenes of extortion were witnessed in December 1984 when hundreds of residents around the Union Carbide pesticide plant fled Bhopal to escape inhaling the poisonous gas that had leaked from the unit.

Way back in 1897, the British enacted the Epidemic Diseases Act which empowered the government to implement any measures that would prevent the outbreak or spread of any disease. According to the law, anyone disobeying the orders of any public servant can be punished under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

However, this is not enough. Since exploiting the common man in such times has to be sternly dealt with, a provision ought to be incorporated in the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to make overcharging the public a punishable offence. There are several instances of the general public having been subjected to misery and agony in the months following enforcement of the lockdown; I have cited only a few. Denying admission in hospitals, refusing to bury the dead in cemeteries, etc. need to be made punishable offences. The horror stories of this pandemic give us an opportunity to do so.

M.P. Nathanael is Inspector General of Police (Retd), Central Reserve Police Force

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 12:31:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/profiteering-during-a-pandemic/article32262912.ece

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