Anushka Saha, a resident of North Kolkata, considers last Friday to be a lucky day for her family. This despite the fact that she had to run from pillar to post to arrange an oxygen cylinder for her Covid-19 positive father, Ujjal Saha (58).
“We were waiting for his reports but he was showing all Covid-19 symptoms, his SpO2 levels too started dipping. We were asked to administer oxygen by our family physician. So we frantically started calling suppliers for oxygen,” says Saha.
The 23-year-old student of Calcutta University trawled social media pages for numbers. Most of the suppliers didn’t have cylinders. Others quoted exorbitant amounts for a cylinder. Some wanted Rs 30,000, someone else wanted Rs 40,000,” says Saha.
A cylinder which would generally cost about Rs 7,000 in Kolkata is now commanding Rs 40,000 to Rs 75,000.
Eventually, Anushka found a seller who demanded Rs 27,000 in cash. She was asked to come to a spot in South Kolkata. By the time she arranged the money, she received a call from the dealer. He had already sold it to someone else for a higher price. “I was on verge of tears. I didn’t know what to do,” she says. Eventually, friends saw her social media posts and alerted a local political leader who delivered a cylinder for free at her place that night. “I don’t know how to repay his debt,” says Saha.
Chandana Bose (25), a student of Christ University in Bengaluru, was desperately looking for an oxygen cylinder for her maternal uncle Gorachand Mukherjee (68), a resident of Bhawanipore (South Kolkata) last Saturday. “He has been in home quarantine for the past two weeks and his SPO2 levels started falling. We were looking for a hospital bed and cylinders simultaneously. But there were no beds in any hospital. We eventually found a dealer who was asking for Rs 20,000. But thankfully we found a hospital bed too,” says Bose.
Soumya Chatterjee, a medical representative from Kolakata, says his friend had to be carried to the hospital on Monday. The patient was in urgent need of oxygen, and after much effort they managed to reach out to a supplier located in Burrabazar. “He demanded a whopping amount of Rs 74,000 for a 10-litre cylinder. The patient’s relative had agreed to pay the amount but before they could buy the cylinder the patient passed away,” he says.
Meghna Chakrabarty (27), is a resident of Barasat and a volunteer with the activist group ‘Red volunteers’, who are arranging supplies for Covid patients in West Bengal. Two days back she along with a few other volunteers had arranged to buy two cylinders through a crowdfunding project. “They demanded a price of Rs 13,000 for one cylinder, which in normal conditions is priced at Rs 7000 to Rs 8,000. But we agreed since it’s a crisis situation. However, when we went to collect the cylinders the following day, they refused to sell them to us. They had sold it off to someone else who had paid a higher amount,” says Chakrabarty.
Chakrabarty adds that this profiteering over oxygen cylinders has become common over the past few days in urban areas around Kolkata. She says things are better in more remote rural areas of the state. “There is also a shortage of cylinders since people who can afford to pay a higher price are hoarding inside their homes,” she says.
According to an official of Swasthya Bhawan in Kolkata, there is no shortage of oxygen supply in state. “We have a steady supply of oxygen, we do have a shortage of cylinders,” an official tells indianexpress.com over the phone. Panchali Kar, a volunteer who has been collating resources primarily for people in Bengal, agrees. “Generally, these cylinders are leased out. But now, in order to make greater profit the suppliers are selling filled cylinders and demanding any amount they deem fit. This is leading to a shortage of cylinders,” says Kar.
Prakash Dey, who makes a living by renting out oxygen concentrators and cylinders, says for the last 15 days he has not been able to acquire any cylinders from his distributors. “For the past few days I have been receiving close to 30-40 calls a day for cylinders, mostly from Covid patients. But I am unable to supply,” he says.
Speaking about the pricing of cylinders in the market, he says it has increased to about Rs 15,000. In normal condition, the price of a cylinder is approximately Rs 6,500 to Rs 7,000. “I rent out the cylinders with minimum profit. But because of Coronavirus, there is also a risk I am causing to my own health and to that of my family while going to deliver a cylinder to a patient’s house. So I charge a few hundred rupees extra on my commission,” says Dey.
On Monday, West Bengal government launched a control room to ensure smooth supply of medical oxygen. “It will be manned around the clock by health officials. Both private and government hospitals are being asked to contact them in case of a crisis,” clarifies a Swasthya Bhawan official.
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