Air isn’t free anymore …

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.)

A coronavirus second wave has devastated India’s medical system and undermined confidence in the ability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to treat its people and quell the disease. There are widely believed to be far more deaths than the thousands reported each day. Hospitals are full. Drugs, vaccines, oxygen and other supplies are running out. Pandemic profiteers are filling the gap. Medicine, oxygen and other supplies are brokered online or in hushed phone calls. In many cases, the sellers prey on the desperation and grief of families.

“These people, the cyber criminals, were already out there,” said Muktesh Chander, a special commissioner for the Delhi Police. “The moment they got this opportunity they switched on to this modus operandi.”

Sometimes the goods are fraudulent, and some are potentially harmful. Last week, police officers in the state of Uttar Pradesh accused one group of stealing used funeral shrouds from bodies and selling them as new. The day before, officers in the same state discovered more than 100 vials of fake remdesivir, an antiviral drug that many doctors in India are prescribing despite questions about its effectiveness.

Credit: Hari Kumar and Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times, 16 May 2021