NEW DELHI — Within the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, few treasures are more coveted than an empty oxygen canister. India’s hospitals desperately need the metal cylinders to store and transport the lifesaving gas as patients across the country gasp for breath.
So a local charity reacted with outrage when one supplier more than doubled the price, to nearly $200 each. The charity called the police, who discovered what could be one of the most brazen, dangerous scams in a country awash with coronavirus-related fraud and black-market profiteering.
The police say the supplier — a business called Varsha Engineering, essentially a scrapyard — had been repainting fire extinguishers and selling them as oxygen canisters. The consequences could be deadly: The less-sturdy fire extinguishers might explode if filled with high-pressure oxygen.
“This guy should be charged with homicide,” said Mukesh Khanna, a volunteer at the charity. “He was playing with lives.” (The owner, now in jail, couldn’t be reached for comment.)
this month that “the moral fabric of the society is dismembered.”
Over the past month, the New Delhi police have arrested more than 210 people on allegations of cheating, hoarding, criminal conspiracy or fraud in connection with Covid-related scams. Similarly, the police in Uttar Pradesh have arrested 160 people.
“I have seen all kinds of predators and all forms of depravity,” said Vikram Singh, a former police chief in Uttar Pradesh, “but this level of predation and depravity I have not seen in the 36 years of my career or in my life.”
have swooped in to connect those in need with lifesaving resources.
The ad hoc system has limits. Vital supplies like oxygen are still stuck in bottlenecks, and people keep dying after hospitals run out. Vaccine and pharmaceutical makers can’t keep up. Politicians in some places are threatening people who publicly plead for supplies.