“For $ 15,000 ($ 200) I can give you a bottle,” the man said on the phone when I made sure I wasn’t a hidden cop. It was the fifth person I asked to buy Remdesivir – an antiviral drug that is widely used to treat COVID-19.
I never imagined going to the black market to buy coronavirus drugs, but my mother was battling a deadly disease at a hospital in Pune, India, and I was desperate. I knew it was up to me to get the treatment my mother desperately needs, even though I’m in Mumbai, 150 miles away.
My ordeal began on April 9, my brother’s 30th birthday. When I called him to give my best wishes, he replied in horror.
“We just got the test result,” she said, “Mama tested positive for COVID-19.”
I could feel someone pulling the carpet under me.
By then, the COVID-19 crisis in India had already begun. The number of infections was increasing exponentially, and most hospitals were in full capacity. There was already a severe shortage of oxygen cylinders, and some were struggling to get even the most basic medicines and treatments for the disease. On social media, friends and acquaintances constantly shared stories of loved ones who had lost their illnesses and desperate begging for help.
When I hung up the phone, I shivered, thinking I might be able to join them soon.
We consulted with doctors over the phone and started monitoring my mother’s condition at home. We hoped he would be able to defeat the virus without being hospitalized. But on April 12, the oxygen level started to drop and the fever went up. Doctors warned us that if our blood oxygen level dropped below 92, we would have to be hospitalized immediately.
So when we saw that he was 90, we started looking for a hospital bed.
Luckily we got to bed pretty quickly. But due to a lack of crucial COVID-19 medications in the hospital, his doctor asked us to purchase six vials of Remdesivir privately to improve our chances of a full and quick recovery.
Remdesivir is difficult to find not only in Pune but also throughout the country. Although the country is known as the “world’s pharmacy,” despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of new infections and hospitalizations every day, producers are making an effort to meet the demand for the drugs used in COVID-19 treatment.
Knowing that I couldn’t go into the pharmacy and just buy drugs, I shared the message on social media that I needed six bottles of Remdesivir from my mother. My tweet asking for help has been retrieved thousands of times, and I was overwhelmed with offers of help within minutes. People sent me clients, government helplines, and contact information for non-governmental organizations working on the ground. Unfortunately, all of them were steep streets. Most of the helpline numbers didn’t even call, and a few who did never answered.
Knowing how quickly this virus dies, my anxiety increased, and I decided to go to the black market.
I heard about the growth of the COVID-19 black market in India long before my mother became ill because others were trying to find crucial medicines for patients because their loved ones were often talking on social media.
“I don’t want to die. Please pray for me, “the sick and helpless mother of the hospital told me on the phone. She had been there for about five days without any real improvement in health.
Contacting the hospital was a lot of work to get information about my mother’s health. I had to contact three different people to get updates and it was a task that was impossible to get any concrete response from already overloaded health workers.
So I asked my colleagues and friends to contact people who might be willing to sell Remdesivir snacks. They gave me several phone numbers.
For the next few hours, I talked to dozens of friends in India. Some told me that I would have to travel hundreds of miles in a country plagued by pandemics to get what I needed. Others demanded extra sums of money.
In the pre-pandemic period, a bottle of Remdesivir cost about Rs 1000 or about $ 14 in India. I was asked to pay about 15,000 rupees ($ 200) on the black market for an injection route. For the six bottles my mother needed, I expected it to be distributed for at least 90,000 rupees ($ 1,200). To put it bluntly, Mumbai is equivalent to more than double the average monthly salary, and three times the average income.
After spending 12 hours on the phone with strangers, some friends of friends came to my rescue. They told me that they could find the medicines I needed and that they could reach my mother within a reasonable time.
When I found out he was on the road to help, I broke down in tears. I had never felt so powerless and scared. But I was also grateful. I knew I was lucky, especially because of my relative privilege and social ties, and not everyone is in those situations. In fact, according to a recent survey by LocalCircles (a community-based social media platform to raise issues and solve problems), 55 percent of Indian hospital beds were given to people with some connections and tastes, with only 13% of patients getting hospital bed through the usual process .
While my mother spent more time in the hospital, we both quickly realized that it was a lonely fight against COVID-19. He told us that in this situation he had to pray to himself and especially while he was calm, he could not stop thinking about us, his children. There was a moment when he thought he wouldn’t get it. Then he called me and asked me to pray for him.
My mom is fixing it and healing at home. But the situation in India has worsened. Over the last few weeks, the praise, the desperate demand for oxygen and fans, and the videos of people cremating my loved ones on social media feeds have been overwhelming.
I have never seen my country in such a depressing situation. I have spent most of my life in this country, and yet it makes me a stranger now. I feel like I’m in a post-apocalyptic film where people in the world are being attacked by aliens and a few survivors are struggling to protect themselves and their loved ones. The alien that invades in this case is COVID-19 and has already killed more than 200,000 Indian lives.
After the test I underwent to get the medicine my mother needed, I decided to do something to help others in that situation.
I created a Facebook community group with my friend Zoraiz Riaz, who was a huge success with a similar group in Pakistan.
Today, our team has more than 5,000 members and we are receiving an urgent need for 30 to 40 requests a day. Some come to our group for help finding COVID-19 medications, oxygen tanks, or hospital beds. Others are looking for ways to cremate the bodies of their loved ones – with an unprecedented number of deaths, making it as difficult to get a hospital bed as incineration in India today.
The most desperate requests we receive are usually from the smallest towns and cities. Many of these areas have very few resources and information available. We recently received a request from the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in India for oxygen cylinders and very basic COVID-19 medicines. It is easier to find people and organizations who are willing to help in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai and target those in need. But for those living in rural areas and small towns, we often make an effort to find the right kind of support.
While we try to connect with those who can provide what is needed, tackling this problem individually can go so far.
It is true that there are so many people all over India trying to help. Many have found medicines, hospital beds, oxygen tanks and cremation sites thanks to the kindness of their loved ones. But well-meaning individuals can do just that. To slow the spread of this virus dramatically and then end it, we need a more coordinated effort by our leaders and the international community. Volunteer work is helping 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 attitude of Al Jazeera’s editorial.