As India battles a relentless COVID-19 surge with one patient dying every four minutes, families face hurdles accessing life-saving resources. Some are turning to informal markets to buy supplementary oxygen. In one shocking case, a woman was sold an oxygen cylinder that turned out to be a fire extinguisher.
Geeta Arora, a woman in India’s capital city Delhi, was desperately searching for an oxygen cylinder earlier this week. Arora told Delhi police that she was trying to find the cylinder for a friend’s relative, who had developed severe symptoms from COVID-19, but was unable to find a hospital bed.
According to police, she managed to connect with two men, identified as Ashutosh Chauhan and Ayush, through WhatsApp. The men claimed they would sell her a cylinder for Rs 10,000 ($135). She told police she promptly met them at a metro station and bought the cylinder and handed it over to her friend who needed it. When the friend went to get the cylinder filled with oxygen, they realised it was actually an empty fire extinguisher.
The search for medical oxygen by such unconventional means speaks to the depth of despair for some Indians as the number of total coronavirus cases approached 19 million in the country and deaths surpassed 208,000 on Friday.
The urgent demand for ventilators, hospital beds and medicines such as remdesivir – an antiviral medication that is being used to treat COVID-19 - has created a thriving black market, and some scammers are taking advantage.
When Arora found out that she had been duped, she confronted the scammers and asked for a refund, to no success. In the meantime, the patient for whom she had sought to secure oxygen supply died. This pushed Arora to file a police complaint against the people who defrauded her.
Using surveillance, the police caught the accused scammers, along with four empty fire extinguishers. Police believe their scheme may have resulted in the death of another COVID-19 patient.
Arora was not the only person duped by the accused. “Had we not been cheated, my brother-in-law could have survived,” the relative of a 32-year-old patient, identified only as Narender, told Hindustan Times.
The pair was arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy and cheating. According to police, they were two unemployed men who began duping people for money.
In some cases, scammers asked the patient or their families to make the payment in advance and disappeared. In one case, scammers sold fake vials of remdesivir for $330, leading police to bust an industrial-sized “pharmaceutical” unit manufacturing large quantities of fake remdesivir injections.