The novel coronavirus epidemic (COVID-19) has driven the demand for sanitizers, disinfectants and face masks manifolds.
While price gouging and hoarding has been rampant, we are now seeing substandard and counterfeits products as well.
The government and e-commerce players have taken some much-needed steps to curb the unethical behaviour in the market, but a lot needs to done to address the challenge of availability at reasonable prices and quality products.
The government had brought face masks (2 ply and 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks) and hand sanitizers under Essential Commodities Act. This order will be effective up to June 30, 2020. The move is aimed at ensuring that these items are available to people at reasonable prices and to crack down the hoarders.
State food and drug administrators (FDAs) also swung into action, raiding chemist shops and godowns who are resorting to such unethical practices.
For instance Haryana FDA last week busted a fake hand sanitizer manufacturing company in Gurugram. There are numerous cases of people getting duped by fake N95 masks.
The huge shortage of sanitizers and face masks has led to an unprecedented price gouging.
A surgical mask that used to cost 50 paise per piece is now sold at upwards of Rs 30 per piece.
This is a clear case of exploitation.
There were also allegations against e-commerce platforms who are unable to police rampant price gouging happening on their sites with respect to face masks and sanitizers.
But Flipkart and Amazon have said they are taking measures like removing sellers who make fake claims and urging sellers to maintain fair prices.
“We are aware of the possibility of surging prices of some products on the Flipkart marketplace,” said Flipkart in its recent press note.
“While we do not control prices of products on the Flipkart marketplace platform, we are working closely with our sellers to urge responsible pricing and behavior,” the note added.
Flipkart also said products with fake claims and inflated prices are being removed on an ongoing basis.
“Certain products may be out of stock on Flipkart due to high customer demand. We are working with our sellers to replenish products and encouraging them to be fair in the prices they are proposing,” it added.
Amazon also started restricting sellers of products pertaining to coronavirus such as face masks, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes and sprays, isopropyl alcohol.
In a notice sent to the sellers the company said, “We have implemented more stringent requirements to sell these products in our store and as a result, your offers have been removed. We are not accepting applications to sell these products at this time.”
Not enough, more regulation needed
Concerned with the huge surge in prices over recent weeks, AiMED (Association of Indian Medical Device Industry) representing interest of over 700 medical device manufacturers has sought the intervention of government and drug price regulator, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), in capping prices, and ensuring quality, both with ramifications on consumers, health workers and industry.
“We have written to the union health ministry about the complaints we have received on hoarding of medical devices and basic protective equipment including masks and gloves and hand sanitizers by distributors and traders. We have requested the government to monitor the situation and take stringent action against wrongdoers,” said Rajiv Nath, Forum Coordinator, AIMED.
Many of the ethical distributors and resellers have discontinued selling masks and sanitizers as they do not wish to be labelled as being unethical and exploitative, Nath said.
“It has been noticed that most of the PPE and medical masks being sold in India are not manufactured under prescribed hygienic conditions and also not comply with Basic Standards of PPE as recommended by WHO,” said Dr Sanjeev Relhan, Chairman, Preventive Wear Manufacturers Association of India.
“This scenario may lead to a number of Healthcare Workers getting infected as they will attend the patients with a false sense of security that they are equipped with PPE and hence will be casual in taking precautions,” Relhan said.-Money Control