A horrifying video* of dead bodies, tightly wrapped in garbage bags lying on beds in Sion Hospital, Mumbai, sometimes for as long as 30 hours, among patients battling coronavirus, has gone viral. The reason for this is not callousness on the part of the Hospital, but a reflection of the acute shortage of morgue facilities, space and procedure that requires COVID-19 testing of bodies before disposal or handing over to relatives who often don't want to claim their dead.
If anything, the video exposes the depressing conditions in which our healthcare professionals at government and municipal hospitals are forced to work, while we resort to publicity gimmicks like banging kitchen utensils and showering petals on hospitals (adding to their work because they have to clean up the flowers after the ‘show’ is over).
Two months into a draconian lock-down, our hospitals are still struggling for PPE (personal protection equipment), N95 masks (in which there is raging scandal), ventilators, oxygen masks and reservoirs (crucial for COVID-19 patients) and even body bags to dispose the dead! If this is the situation in Mumbai, one can imagine how much worse it is in the rest of India (probably barring Kerala).
Government and municipal hospitals bear the brunt of every change in rules and policy experiment of governments at the Centre and state. As I write this column, hospitals in Mumbai are bracing for another influx of cases after opening liquor shops for two days as well as the rule that migrant workers had to obtain health certificates to be permitted to go back to their home states. This requirement was sensibly scrapped on 7th May, when Maharashtra, probably, realised how impossible it was to implement it without another big flare up in COVID-positive cases.
Every hospital has reached out to donors for help and donors, in turn, are being ripped off by a thriving black market, because they have no idea of prices, nor the time and inclination to dive into research on every product, while being bombarded with offers from dealers and intermediaries.
I have already written about how every pandemic (and war) unleashes corruption and India already has a very high level of corruption as well as a variety of financial scams that prey on the increased panic levels in a gullible population.
The disgraceful failure of the government to crackdown on profiteering and black-marketing of protective gear so crucial to hospitals, points to rampant corruption and collusion. Consider this:
1. COVID Testing: The high cost of COVID testing (Rs4,500) and the massive mark up in COVID-19 test kits sold to Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has already come up before the Delhi High Court, systematically exposed by intrepid journalists working on healthcare.
2. The Ken has reported a scam in the procurement of ventilators and how the successful bidder, a start up called AgVa, has not been able to deliver even a fraction of the tendered amount, although the tender itself was rigged to suit it. What is this, if not playing with lives in the midst of a global pandemic? The Ken says, India needs 75,000 ventilators and has only 20,000.
3. The production, quality, material and design of what passes off as PPE and protective gear is worth a full-scale investigation. Unfortunately, with hospitals across the country reeling from acute shortage, these are being sold and procured in large numbers to add to government supplies which are still not able to meet real needs. We have already written about it here: COVID-19: The Ground Reality of Our Healthcare Workers
Racket in Masks
Now, let us look at the appalling racket in the production and sale of N95 masks that are crucial for healthcare workers dealing with COVID patients. Moneylife Foundation, like many other NGOs and social organisations, has been involved in supplying protective gear, largely to government, municipal and charitable hospitals or those designated for COVID-19 treatment.
There are just two companies producing N95 or equivalent masks around Mumbai: Venus Safety and Health Private Limited (at the Taloja industrial area) and Magnum Health and Safety Pvt Ltd (near Palghar). Both claim that their entire production has been taken over by the government and have refused to entertain our purchase requests.
As it happens, two NGOs—Moneylife Foundation and Voice of Indian Taxpayers—headed by well-known activist Anjali Damania managed to get one order each accepted by Venus Safety and Health (Venus). Venus flatly refused to entertain any further orders citing production constraints.
Then, nine NGOs with similar experiences (some of them headed by doctors) wrote to Ajoy Mehta, Maharashtra chief secretary, but received no response. When I messaged Mr Mehta, he had no interest in understanding the issue. So here’s a rundown on our experience of trying to procure masks from Venus.
In the initial days of our relief work, when chemists were quoting a exorbitant Rs395 per mask, the lowest quote we received for Venus N95 masks was Rs175 from Connect & Heal, around 30th March. We were told that prices had shot up and the masks were never available below Rs100. We didn’t know any better and made our initial purchases at that price.
In April, the Maharashtra government added to the complication by insisting that sellers as well as purchasers needed to be approved by the state government’s Haffkine Institute.
This is when we began to hunt for the original producers and discovered Venus (since the N95 produced by 3M were simply not available) was located right here, in the Mumbai suburbs.
I recently learnt how Anjali Damania and her NGO were on a similar and parallel journey with several other NGOs. They have extensively documented and collected evidence of the hoarding of several lakh N95 (and equivalent masks of various companies) which are available to anyone willing to pay a steep premium.
Ms Damania also has a document that shows that Haffkine Institute had purchased 92,500 masks for the TB clinics at a price of Rs17.33 on 28th January 2020. Venus produces a wide range of masks and this information is about their +4400 series that is considered equivalent to N95 masks.
Around 15th April, Moneylife Foundation managed to reach Mahesh Kudav of Venus through some government sources and managed to place an order of 5,000 masks (+4420 series) at a price of Rs40+ GST. Ms Damania’s NGO purchased 3,200 masks at Venus Safety at Rs60+ GST, around the same time.
After that, the company stonewalled all our attempts to persuade them to accept any other order and claimed its production was fully booked. However, to my surprise, dozens of dealers began to send us photos and offers to sell the same masks at a mark up of over 150%. All of them were fully aware of the price at which Venus sold the masks. If Venus’ production was fully booked, where were these masks coming from? The answer is obvious.
Ms Damania provides a few important details. On 8 February 2020, the Union ministry of commerce had banned the export of N95 masks. On 13th March, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority brought 2ply, 3ply, N95 masks and sanitisers under Essential Commodities Act to prevent hoarding, black marketing and profiteering on these items. Violations are punishable with a fine and imprisonment that can go up to seven years.
But, despite an emergency-like situation all over the country and stringent restrictions on the movement of people, nothing could stop the racket in N95 masks. Ms Damania points out that the government order of 13th March had to be given teeth through a notification by each state government.
The Maharashtra government has done nothing and its chief secretary is uninterested. Ms Damania was told that both, Venus and Magnum, were now directly under the control of GoI (government of India) and, hence, there was no need to issue a notification. If this is true, and the entire production of two companies is picked up by the Maharashtra government, why is there such an acute shortage of supply to government hospitals, private hospitals and among healthcare workers? Why is each government hospital pleading for donations of N95 masks?
Also, if there is no collusion, why is Maharashtra, the worst-affected state, doing absolutely nothing to crack down on the massive hoarding and over-pricing of these masks? Is it because the state has no issues with NGOs, donors and individuals being ripped off because they are either ignorant or desperate to buy protection at any price?
Link to Anjali Damania’s video on Facebook:
Between Ms Damania, Moneylife Foundation and seven other NGOs, we have plenty of evidence and photos and WhatsApp messages offering ‘ready stock’ of N95 masks in lakhs that hospitals desperately need. Why is nobody in the government interested in cracking down on these, despite our attempts to call everyone who matters? Who is supporting these companies?
The answers are evident. Citizens, do-gooders and corporates involved in mindless CSR (corporate social responsibilities) need to understand what is going on and get together to stop the loot and bring down prices. Please do not pay a premium because it is donor’s money or corporate money. You are accountable to the people.
Here is a price list provided by Venus to a top police official a week ago, with their sales price.
What Is To Be Done?
Here’s how you can help stop the scam. If you are not a healthcare professional dealing with COVID patients, you do not need an N-95 mask. So get a simple cotton mask or even a 3-ply mask and not pay usurious prices. If you want to feel safer, get a simple face shield that is now available for Rs45-Rs50.
If you are a donor or company executive whose heart bleeds for healthcare workers, gather evidence when you are offered N95-equivalent masks at anything over Rs75 (yes, let us account for some extra dealer margin in these difficult times) and file a complaint on the National Consumer Helpline No. 1800-11-4000, or file an online complaint at: www.consumeraffairs.nic.in, [email protected] and email@example.com@gov.in
Lets us prevent the loot in the times of COVID.
Note: * We have not posted the Sion Hospital video which was played on television and widely circulated on social media out of consideration for our health warriors who are working round-the-clock to keep us safe. One young resident told me how his mother had burst into tears after seeing the video and wanted him to come back home rather than put his life at risk. Another senior doctor says the horrifying conditions and bureaucracy have led to some medical students quitting the course half way after having joined with a lot of idealism. St George Hospital, which is a designated COVID Hospital doesn't even have air-conditioning in its mortuary because of red-tape. If we want to fight the virus, all of us have a responsibility to support our health workers at government hospitals who are working for us in the most trying conditions.