“I can give you a bottle for Rs 15,000 ($ 200),” the man said over the phone, after reassuring him that I was not an undercover cop. This was the fifth person I called to ask him to buy Remdesivir – an antiviral drug widely used in the treatment of COVID-19.
I never imagined going to the black market to buy coronavirus drugs, but my mother was battling the deadly disease at a hospital in Pune, India, and I was desperate. I knew it was up to me to give my mother the treatment she desperately needed, even though I was in Mumbai, about 150 km from her.
My ordeal began on April 9, my brother’s 30th birthday. When I called him to wish him my best wishes, he replied in a panic.
“We just received the test result,” he said, “Mom tested positive for COVID-19.”
I felt like someone was pulling the rug out from under me.
Then the COVID-19 crisis in India had already started. The number of infections was increasing exponentially and most hospitals were at full capacity. There was already a severe shortage of oxygen cylinders and some were struggling to get even basic medicine and treatment for the disease. On social media, friends and acquaintances constantly shared tragic stories about loved ones they had lost to illness and desperate pleas for help.
Hanging up the phone, I shuddered, thinking I might join them too soon.
We saw doctors over the phone and began to monitor my mother’s condition at home. We hoped she would be able to beat the virus without being hospitalized. But on April 12, her oxygen levels started to drop and her fever continued to rise. Doctors had warned us that if her blood oxygen level fell below 92, she would need to be hospitalized immediately.
So when we saw that he was 90, we started looking for a hospital bed.
Fortunately, we were able to find a bed for her fairly quickly. But the hospital was running out of crucial COVID-19 drugs, so their doctor asked us to privately acquire six vials of Remdesivir to improve their chances of a full and speedy recovery.
Remdesivir is difficult to find not only in Pune, but across the country. Although the country is known as “the pharmacy of the world”, with tens of thousands of new infections and hospitalizations every day, producers are struggling to meet the demand for drugs used in the treatment of COVID-19.
Since I knew I couldn’t just walk into a pharmacy and buy the drug, I shared the post that I needed six vials of Remdesivir for my mom on social media. My tweet asking for help was retweeted thousands of times and I was inundated with offers of help within minutes. People sent me leads, helplines and contact details for non-governmental organizations working in the field. Unfortunately, everything turned out to be dead ends. Most of the helplines didn’t even ring, and the few that did never got an answer.
Knowing how quickly this virus kills, my anxiety mounted and I decided to turn to the black market.
I had heard about the growing COVID-19 black market in India long before my mother fell ill, as others trying to find essential medicines for their patients, their loved ones were openly talking about it on social media.
“I do not want to die. Please pray for me, ”said my sick and helpless mother from the hospital on the phone with me. She had been there for about five days with no real improvement in her health.
Getting in touch with the hospital to get an update on my mom’s health was a Herculean task. I had to call three different people for updates and getting a concrete response from the already overworked healthcare workers was a mission impossible.
So I asked my colleagues and friends to put me in touch with people who might be willing to sell vials of Remdesivir. They gave me several phone numbers.
In the hours that followed, I spoke to dozens of people across India. Some told me I would have to travel hundreds of miles in a pandemic-stricken country to get what I needed. Others demanded extraordinary sums.
In the pre-pandemic period, a vial of Remdesivir cost around Rs 1,000, or $ 14, in India. On the black market, I was asked to pay around 15,000 rupees ($ 200) for an injection vial. For the six vials my mother needed, I had to part with at least Rs 90,000 ($ 1,200). To put it in perspective, this is equivalent to more than double the average monthly salary in Mumbai and three times the median rent.
After 12 excruciating hours on the phone with strangers, friends of friends came to my rescue. They told me that they could find the medicine I needed and get it to my mother within a reasonable time.
When I found out help was on the way, I collapsed crying. I had never felt so helpless and scared before. But I was also grateful. I knew I was lucky – mainly because of my relative privileges and social connections – and not everyone does in these situations. Indeed, a recent survey by LocalCircles, a social media platform for communities to raise issues and solve problems, found that 55% of hospital beds in India are allocated to people with connections and of influence, while only 13% of patients could get a hospital bed through the routine process.
As my mom spent more time in the hospital, we quickly realized how lonely her battle with COVID-19 was. She recounted how she must have prayed for herself in this condition and although she was mostly sedated, she couldn’t stop thinking about us her children. There was a time when she thought she couldn’t do it. It was then that she called me and asked me to pray for her.
My mom is on the mend now and is recovering at home. But the situation in India has turned from bad to worse. Over the past few weeks, the number of praise, desperate demands for oxygen and ventilators and videos of people cremating loved ones on my social media feeds has been overwhelming.
I have never seen my country in such a desperate situation. I have spent most of my life in this country, and yet it now seems foreign to me. I feel like I’m in a post-apocalyptic movie, in which the world is attacked by aliens and the few survivors scramble to protect themselves and their loved ones. The alien invader in this case is COVID-19 and it has already claimed the lives of over 200,000 Indians.
After the ordeal I went through to get my mother the medication she needed, I decided to do something to help others in this situation.
I started a Facebook community group with my friend Zoraiz Riaz who had had huge success with a similar group in Pakistan.
Our group currently has over 5,000 members and we receive 30 to 40 urgent requests for help per day. Some come to our group to ask for help finding COVID-19 drugs, oxygen tanks or hospital beds. Others are looking for ways to cremate the bodies of loved ones – with the unprecedented number of coronavirus deaths, getting cremated in India today is as difficult as getting a hospital bed.
The most desperate requests we receive usually come from small towns. Many of these regions have very limited resources and information. We recently received a request from the town of Bareilly, located in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, for oxygen cylinders and some really basic COVID-19 drugs. It is easier to find people and organizations willing to help in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai and refer those in need to them. But for those who live in rural areas and small towns, we often struggle to find the right kind of help.
As we try to connect those in need with those who can give, tackling this problem on an individual basis can only go a long way.
It is true that there are so many in India who are trying their best to help in any way they can. Many have found medicine, hospital beds, oxygen tanks, and cremation sites for loved ones thanks to the kindness of strangers online. But there is little that well-meaning individuals can do. To dramatically slow down and then stop the spread of this virus, we need a more coordinated effort from our leaders and the international community. Volunteer work helps many people in need, but it is not a sustainable model for dealing with this disaster.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.