It is by now well known that governments ~ Union and state ~ monitor social media carefully, are extremely sensitive to criticism, and have sometimes gone as far as to slap serious charges, including of sedition, for statements they deem offensive.
But curiously this process of monitoring appears not to have brought to the attention of governments the many complaints of exploitation by sundry service providers which flood social media in these difficult times.
Certainly, beyond the occasional meaningless assurance to act, there is little to suggest that the different ministries of the Union government or the various state governments have acted in any significant measure to crack down. Governments have patted themselves on the backs for their spirited response to the epidemic, for the beds they have made available, for their extensive testing and contact tracing and for ferrying stranded Indians home.
But there is another side to the story which scarcely raises official eyebrows. Complaints of overcharging by hospitals, of Covid care packages that cost several lakh rupees, of not releasing bodies until extortionate charges are paid, of exorbitant prices being quoted by chemists for critical drugs, of the exploitative choke-hold on medical essentials and of even a thriving black market in tickets for Vande Bharat flights abound on social media as anguished Indians cope with the many ills that the epidemic has visited on them.
The efforts of governments to curb malpractices have been ineffectual at best.
In Delhi, despite the government having capped rates for treatment at private hospitals, the exploitation continues as vested interests collaborate to keep enforcement at bay. Hospitals accredited to the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare providers (NABH) are supposed to charge Rs 10,000 a day (including PPE cost of Rs 1,200) for isolation beds, Rs 15,000 (including PPE cost of Rs 2,000) for ICU beds without a ventilator and Rs 18,000 (including PPE cost of Rs 2,000) for these beds with a ventilator. But horror stories of patients being charged up to Rs 2 lakh a day are common, and in the absence of punitive action are likely to repeat themselves.
Tickets on Vande Bharat flights – aimed at repatriating stranded Indians – are sold by Air India on its website, through its booking offices and through what are called authorised travel agents. More than one Indian stranded overseas has complained of how tickets become unavailable within a few minutes of the flight being opened for booking, and how thereafter a network of agents arranges tickets at a premium, with passengers being asked to pay twice and sometimes two-and-a-half times the listed price. It seems no special provision has been made to accommodate Indians wanting to return on account of a bereavement, and they are largely left at the mercy of these touts.
As Indian commerce presents its least edifying face to a desperate public, there is nothing to suggest that the ministries responsible for health and civil aviation have taken effective steps to curb malpractices. This must change.