COVID-19: Loot and Corruption in N95 Masks
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 dirwm-ca@nic.insecy.doca@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. 

 

  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User 

    COMMENTS

    ngsukhlecha

    3 months ago

    disposal of ppe itself has become problem... anything touted as a amelioration quickly becomes opposite due to mindless quick fix approach and methods. the cure becomes worse than ailment.

    scnjat

    3 months ago

    What we we see in the corruption incident in N95 masks can be traced to our inability to bring to book the guilty persons mainly because the judicial system is such that you are unlikely to get a judgement in your lifetime i.e. in one generation. This is the biggest lesson of Covid-19 pandemic has taught us. Just look around and you would see people merrily breaking (and taking pride in it) the norms of social distancing, wearing a masks and staying home. Hence, one of the more important behavioural aspect that needs change is the importance to obey rules, regulations, orders, laws and guidelines; when no one is looking! It is clear that the positive cases would have perhaps halved if all had followed the simple rules of social distancing and wearing masks and remained indoors while quarantined or during lockdown. Improvement in the judicial system will adversely affect the politicians the most. The problem with our judicial system is not lack of judges but lack of competent judges, especially at the district level and below. It has the broken window syndrome and the entire judiciary becomes broken window.

    rahulb

    3 months ago

    First of all, whatsapp messages about the masks etc. cannot be taken as evidence. what if they are lying? Many of such messages are frauds.

    Atleast, some ngo etc. should have purchased from these whatsapp sellers to uncover the scam.

    and why did you excluded kerala? If scams can happen everywhere then why not in kerala?

    REPLY

    sucheta

    In Reply to rahulb 3 months ago

    Please read the article again and try to understand it if you can. Moneylife has an NGO - Moneylife Foundation. WE received the messages ourselves. We did everything that you are lecturing us about. We also brought this to the attention of a 1) Venus 2) Chief secretary of the state 3) several authorities in Delhi

    suketu

    3 months ago

    Superb article otherwise we would never know.This is the "Gujrat Model" by Mr Messiah and no press questions entertained last 5 yrs.All "Gujrat Model".

    induents

    3 months ago

    Maam,Great story,thanks for doing such a ground level & complete study. Also there must be some do good /middlemen working to extract commissions from the supplies made to govt/semi govt depts made out of donations but are pretending to be angels in these tough times,because there is no system & accountability in my dear country.

    raviforjustice

    3 months ago

    One can easily share the angst and anguish of the author. But using terms like 'publicity gimmicks' for banging kitchen utensils and showering petals on hospitals and 'draconian' for the lock-down is beyond rationality. While the former was a no cost act that brought a large share of the population to show solidarity with the health care workers (in this case including the police personnel) it cannot be denied how the latter had kept the infections and death due to Covid at the levels where even the developed nations had to compliment the decisions of the national government. Just imagine what would have been the case with the kind of poverty and illiteracy prevailing on our country. And if anybody blames the current government for these two basic deficiencies persisting in our country, I can only say that s/he is out of his/her mind.

    Now, I have to make some clarifications on the Kerala situation that you have uniquely identified as a model to follow.

    I am Keralaite, residing in Kerala for the last 22 years and been only an activist, real activist, not an armchair one, throughout this period. I have read the Vohra Committee report on the politician-bureaucrat-underworld nexus and would say that the report is an understatement on the nexus and its deleterious effect on the society. And then I learnt of the judge-advocate nexus that pervades our justice delivery system, which is the most dangerous of all nexuses and which I believe has brought us to this level of lawlessness.

    To put the record straight I must say that the Govt of Kerala has done nothing better than many other states which are of the same size or smaller. I am wondering if the only requirement of getting acclaims for the government is to have embedded journalists post all honky dory reports where ever and when ever possible.

    Have you heard of the Sprinklr (no 'e') scam that happened in Kerala during this covid times? I shall write about it in brief but comprehensively later.

    On 11 Mar 2020, long before the lock down, there was a report that a doctor in a private clinic had suspected a patient, who had consulted her, to be covid infected. She advised him to report at the District Hospital to do the necessary investigations and as abundant precaution reported the matter to the Asst or Additional District Medical Officer. But the ADMO did not take any action promptly and later it was learn that the person had left for the Middle East. Once the report appeared in the media there was an effort to cover up the defaulting public servants of the Health Department. The next days report informed us that the the doctor was being charged under IPC Section 505 and Kerala Police Act Sec 120.

    I do not like talking ill of my state but then I have to distinguish between the people of the state and its corrupt and good for nothing government.

    At least at the national level, nobody can accuse of the PM of being corrupt. Unfortunately he is working with the same rusted tools-the corrupt and treacherous bureaucracy and the judiciary which is, of its own admission, a total failure (though it may tout unreasonable reasons for it) bequeathed to him.

    vkjain1973

    3 months ago

    Its so sad to see that some among us can remain to be inhuman even in these time. May God give them Sadbudhhi. And more strength to you and your team to fight them.

    medrite

    3 months ago

    :) Either another's liability is my asset or it isn't. One can't have it both ways. If it isn't, lets stop teaching that in all business and accounting schools globally. For humans are porous bodies, inextricably interconnected with each other and inseparably embedded in our environment. The whole planet shares a common balance sheet and another's liability is mine too.

    The cost of this miscalculation is paid in (life)time, with accelerated depreciation of one's body, which is not even a cost we book. Hint: Map life expectancy or pace of aging (frailty index (FI)) against corruption rating of a country. Money can be earned in isolation, QALY is earned together. But how will you factor it if you don't depreciate your most important asset (human body) on your balance sheet? Why does your balance sheet believe you are immortal?

    So, dissociation of "mainstream business" & "social development" itself is an aberration, that the Earth has now reconciled by locking up it's practitioners - see how fast it healed, when compared to our "philanthropic" efforts.

    Sustainability = (QALY)^n

    mahesh.kalkar

    3 months ago

    It is so painful to read these harsh truths. Hats off to Moneylife for continuously bringing out these sordid stories of Govts being involved in massive corruption even during this pandemic. On second thoughts, these are probably ideal times for the crooks to thrive. That's our history.

    Am sending this article to my Constituency MP, who is a Cabineet Minister, knowing fully well nothing good will come off the effort.

    REPLY

    sucheta

    In Reply to mahesh.kalkar 3 months ago

    Your last line is truly important. I received scores of calls and messages about this article - but the govt. remains silent. The price of N 95 remains as high as ever. Unless all of us treat this as OUR issue and not just another expose, nothing will change! I urge everyone to spread the word and demand accountability from policy makers!

    kushgrwl

    3 months ago

    Sucheta Mam,

    I am a manufacturer and exporter of these items. Yes i started due to Covid but it was for my USA based buyers and China was shut down at that time.

    During lockdown I was one of the firsts to manufacture PPEs, there were no norms at that time and no one knew SITRA. None of the consumers of my PPE have been infected to date. However due to government diktats, i have stopped making PPE now and god save our healthcare workers not from the virus but from the beareaucrats.

    I recently started making N95 equivalent masks and we have received test report from SITRA which shows more than 98% Bacterial Filteration.

    Reg your story on Venus, please note that Venus goods are being counterfeited in China. Even you will find whatsapp forwards of 3M which has not sent any shipment to India since January, i know this because my friend has been 3M distributor since decades, I had used his sources to try source 3M for Latin American buyers in February 1st week but 3M refused to give supply to anyone.

    The direct cost of a N95 mask is Rs. 20 in current state, considering everything, manufacturers can offer goods easily at Rs. 50 to bulk buyers. Sadly, people are running after brand names and certification.

    Main problem for direct price shooting up is that India doesnt have production facility for raw materials which are called Spunlace, Melt Blown etc... if government would have asked norms and focused on setting up these facilities, our industry would have started offering these masks for Rs. 5.

    If export of N95 was not banned, there would have been huge export related infrastructure in India like there is for the normal surgical masks which are now selling at Rs. 3-4 a piece.

    REPLY

    khalilahmadkhan

    In Reply to kushgrwl 3 months ago

    I agree with you ..we must stand by our caregivers in time of this criss.....we can help.you too with right RM ..we are Manufacturer of key RM and common supplier most of mask manufacturer including Venus Theatex Magnum Premium...etc

    mrmreddy002

    In Reply to kushgrwl 3 months ago

    Suchetaji has forgot to mention another scam that many are going thru in the form of sanitizers which I think does not cost more than 50 per liter for manufactures but are being sold around 500 per liter. In the beginning before Govt fixed the price, they were sold @ 1000 per liter.

    sucheta

    In Reply to mrmreddy002 3 months ago

    Every major requirement during Covid is marked up. I look forward to suggestions on where we can source these at a lower price. Moneylife Foundation treats donors' money very carefully and we do not like being looted. So your help in identifying suppliers of simple rubber gloves, N95 equivalent masks, good quality sanitisers with 70% plus alcohol content etc will be valued.

    khalilahmadkhan

    In Reply to sucheta 3 months ago

    I think ....I can help money life foundation .....with knowledge and right product ....i am a professional with Medical wear / medical fabric please let me know ....right contact details ..my email address is [email protected], [email protected]

    yerramr

    3 months ago

    Corruption has become a way of life and the honest are punished. Those who expose the corrupt like the Money Life are hounded at worst. Mumbai, a late entrant, topped the headlines sheerly because of the size; second, because several in Mumbai also feel that they can hound corona out with their money power. Though Telangana State handled quite well on many parameters, the moment they opened the doors to wine shops, it was real pandemic. The flattening curve suddenly started rising.
    This virus has taught discipline at least to many. Several have learnt austerity - whose sustainability is at best a guess. There will be many bitter lessons too. The endemic corruption that seeped into the veins of several that include bureaucrats, the burial ground keepers ( I had to pay Rs.10000 in 2005 for one ton of wood to set fire to my mother;s body!) and the doctors , nurses and ward boys. To take legal charge of a body from a hospital whether with or without Corona is the first fortune one has to part. Systems were supposed to reduce corruption but with all the talk of digitization, where are those systems? People like us keep fighting relentlessly on these issues.. Whenever avoiding regulation is cheaper than honoring it, people prefer the former. This is prevailing in every activity and particularly where the supply is short of demand and where it is made to look smaller than demand - in the instant case you have so excellently documented.

    gcmbinty.37

    3 months ago

    On 'Quora' recently (yesterday only) I received the query about the status of corruption in PM Modi government. I wish this to mirror this above media report. Thanks Moneylife.

    nadeemajshaikh

    3 months ago

    Public healthcare has been severely neglected, no government is interested in this unglamorous department. Our priorities are misplaced, we have money to build statues but no money for hospitals. Even at these times the government is going on the fast track with the new parliament building project
    Of course it goes without saying that private hospitals exploit our poor medical infrastructure to mint money.And as usual, the poor suffer the most.

    sivachander19

    3 months ago

    Lets pray to God those who and all involved in this racket gets coronavirus . Treating doctors/hospitals should loot their lifetime savings as fees or refrian from treating them.

    Prosecute LG Polymers management, demands ex-bureaucrat EAS Sarma
    Former bureaucrat and environmental activist E.A.S. Sarma has demanded the prosecution of the promoters and the senior managers of the LG Polymers for toxic gas leakage from its plant here, which has killed eight people and affected hundreds.
     
    The former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer wrote a letter to Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy urging him to fix responsibility on Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) and the officers of the industrial safety wing for allowing such an industrial unit to expand operations and resume manufacturing.
     
    He said when the first phase of the recent lockdown ended, a No Objection Certificate (NOC) was apparently granted to LG Polymers, ostensibly on the ground that it was an "essential" industry. "By no stretch of imagination, a plastics manufacturing unit like this can be called essential. Someone senior in the government should be held responsible for this lapse."
     
    Sarma alleged that the South Korean company was constantly pampered by successive governments.
     
    "It stands on government ceiling surplus land valuing hundreds of crores of rupees and the company had dragged the government into litigation, when the government tried to take back the land. Despite this, how did the APPCB grant Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) around the beginning of 2019 for the unit's expansion? APPCB did not apparently take clearance either from the state government or from the Union Ministry of Environment," said Sarma, a former secretary to Government of India.
     
    He said the APPCB should not have allowed the expansion as this unit was highly polluting one and was close to residential areas.
     
    "This is not the first industrial accident to take place in the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. Around 30 to 40 accidents took place in the past resulting in several workers and civilians losing their lives, with no promoter prosecuted and no officer of the state government punished. It implies collusion between the officers and the promoters of the polluting industries. I would not be surprised if the promoters have had support from the political leaders of all hues," wrote Sarma.
     
    "Pollution in principle reduces the body's immunity to diseases like corona. It is ironic that both the Centre and the State should jointly encourage activities such as liquor sales and industrial pollution that weaken human immunity at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented crisis due to coronavirus spread," he added.
     
    Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User 

    COMMENTS

    bhattacharjee.madhumita

    3 months ago

    Even in these trying times how can humanity stoop to this level? My thanks to you for at least bringing forth this issue.

    avm007

    3 months ago

    action against officials of APPCB makes sense prosecute LG Polymers management is nonsense because in majority of regulatory departments no paper moves unless accompanied by smiling Mohandas

    15 migrants run over by goods train in Maharashtra
    In a tragic incident at least 15 migrant workers, who were sleeping on the railway tracks while going back to their native places were run over by a goods train between Maharashtra's Jalna and Aurangabad, officials said on Friday.
     
    A senior railway official confirmed that 15 migrant labourers were run over by a goods train between Jalna and Aurangabad of Nanded Divison of South Central Railway.
     
    The official said that the incident happened around 5.30 a.m. on Friday when the migrant workers, who were on way back to their homes and sleeping on the railway tracks.
     
    However, it is yet not clear from where this group hailed and where they were going.
     
    Amid the nationwide lockdown, thousands of migrant workers stranded in several other cities have started their journey to return to their native places on foot.
     
    The interstate bus service, passenger, mail and express train services have been suspended since March 24.
     
    The railways has started running Shramik Special trains to transport the stranded migrants to their native places since May 1.
     
    Till Thursday railways has run 201 Shramik Special trains.
     
    Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User 

    We are listening!

    Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.
      Loading...
    Close

    To continue


    Please
    Sign Up or Sign In
    with

    Email
    Close

    To continue


    Please
    Sign Up or Sign In
    with

    Email

    BUY NOW

    online financial advisory
    Pathbreakers
    Pathbreakers 1 & Pathbreakers 2 contain deep insights, unknown facts and captivating events in the life of 51 top achievers, in their own words.
    online financia advisory
    The Scam
    24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
    Moneylife Online Magazine
    Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
    financial magazines online
    Stockletters in 3 Flavours
    Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
    financial magazines in india
    MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
    (Includes Moneylife Online Magazine)
    FREE: Your Complete Family Record Book
    Keep all the Personal and Financial Details of You & Your Family. In One Place So That`s Its Easy for Anyone to Find Anytime
    We promise not to share your email id with anyone