Medics are in dire need of masks, but the supply has nearly dried up. Picture: Supplied
Medics are in dire need of masks, but the supply has nearly dried up. Picture: Supplied

Businesses accused of being 'world's new arms dealers' during Covid-19 panic

By Mervyn Naidoo Time of article published Apr 5, 2020

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Durban – Masks are considered to be of vital importance to healthcare workers, especially those working in environments where the highly infectious coronavirus is prevalent.

Doctors have complained that some wholesalers have exploited the high demand for healthcare gear, especially masks, and have hiked their prices considerably.

Medical goods suppliers have also been accused of hoarding their stockpile of masks and only dealing directly with the public and other unregistered entities, instead of healthcare institutions, to rake in greater profits, regardless of the current health crisis.

“Many suppliers are now trying to sell directly to healthcare staff and I have had numerous personal approaches,” said Dr Rinesh Chetty, an orthopedic surgeon based at Durban’s City Hospital, in a recent Facebook post.

“I have no words to describe the heartbreak and disgust that fills my heart and soul as I prepare mentally for this invisible war.”

Chetty is at odds with suppliers “sitting safely in their homes (during lockdown)” and demanding highly marked-up prices on gear, yet medics like himself risk their lives to treat people who might be friends or family of the suppliers.

He said local businessmen were “the world’s new arms dealers”.

“The world is in the grip of a pandemic, on the scales of a World War.

“Personal protective equipment (PPE) are designed for healthcare workers on the front line. You have our bulletproof vests, ammunition and armour sitting in your storage units.”

Chetty’s rallying call to the suppliers was: “We have 21 days to stop Covid-19 from collapsing the healthcare system, we need your stocks urgently.”

Dr Avinesh Ramlall, who runs three medical practices in Cape Town, said he was also bemused at how the price of masks had suddenly skyrocketed.

“At the beginning of March I purchased a box of 50, 3-ply masks, for R45. When I tried to source the same thing this week, I’ve been quoted between R800 and R1000.

“Masks were being sold at a much higher price, even though suppliers bought it at a cheaper rate and the lockdown made it harder for supplies to arrive from places like India and China.”

Ramlall said the price hiking was frustrating because if there were no masks available, which could become a reality in the coming weeks, he would be left with two options.

“I would have to refuse patients with flu-like symptoms, which I cannot do. The other option would be to redirect them to government hospitals. But they, too, are experiencing the same hassles with gear.”

He said lots of people were sold to the idea that a mask and gloves would prevent them from getting sick.

“It is only necessary for those who are infected. The World Health Organisation is yet to confirm that Covid-19 is an airborne virus. “Then surgical masks should be worn, if they believed the virus was airborne.”

What bemused Ramlall was the public going after N-95 masks which were designed specifically for protecting health-care practitioners from airborne diseases.

Medics were at greater risk when treatment and medication was administered to patients with infectious diseases. This could result in droplets breaking up into micro droplets, which the M-95s are known to be most effective at blocking.

Ramlall said the members of the public were wearing N-95 masks, yet doctors had to make do without them.

He said, last week, the KZN Department of Health issued a directive to hospital staff that it was nearly out of N-95 masks, and they would still be required to report for duty even when their stock was completely depleted.

Ramlall said his practices were on the same trajectory regarding masks and worried about when he had to go home to his wife and four children after work.

He called on the government to encourage locally produced masks, because overseas dealers had also inflated their prices.

Sidwell Medupe, a spokesperson for the department of trade and industry (DTI) said they had advertised a hotline number to report companies hiking prices.

Medupe said that those found guilty would receive hefty fines and critical medical supplies could not be exported unless first cleared by the DTI.

Sunday Tribune

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