Solidarity? When it comes to masks, it’s every nation for itself

People wear face masks on April 03, 2020 in New York. (AFP/Angela Weiss)
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Updated 03 April 2020

Solidarity? When it comes to masks, it’s every nation for itself

  • Officials worldwide were caught short by the crisis with most countries unable to manufacture the millions of masks needed every day for health workers alone
  • Even among Western countries that are nominally allies, accusations of unscrupulous behavior have underscored the mounting anxiety over mask shortages

PARIS: From government stock seizures to sales to the highest bidder on airport tarmacs, the hunt for face masks amid the coronavirus outbreak has become a global free-for-all where the rules of fair play no longer apply.
Officials worldwide were caught short by the crisis with most countries unable to manufacture the millions of masks needed every day for health workers alone.
So nearly everyone is turning to China and other Asian producers, and some players are doing whatever it takes to get their hands on the coveted stocks.
“Procurement markets for COVID-19 supplies are collapsing, and the traditional means of competition and transparency are really not being used,” Christopher Yukins, a law professor at George Washington University said during a videoconference Thursday.
Even among Western countries that are nominally allies, accusations of unscrupulous behavior have underscored the mounting anxiety over mask shortages.
The president of the Ile-de-France region encompassing Paris, Valerie Pecresse, said this week that a shipment of masks ordered for her hard-hit department was snatched at the last minute by “Americans who made a higher bid.”
“The Americans pay cash sight unseen, which obviously can be more tempting for people just looking to make money off the entire world’s distress,” she said.
Pecresse offered no details on the purported American buyers, but officials in at least two other French regions also claimed US buyers swept in to acquire their Chinese orders — in one case on the airport runway just as the plane was about to take off.
In Washington, a senior administration official told AFP “the United States government has not purchased any masks intended for delivery from China to France.”
The buyers could well have been private firms, or middlemen working on behalf of individual American states.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he was “concerned” by a report that a mask order came in smaller than expected after part of it was sold to “a higher bidder” — a not-so-subtle reference to the US.
“We understand that the needs in the US are very extensive, but it’s the same in Canada, so we have to work together,” Trudeau said.
Yet it appears unlikely that cooperation is in the cards.
Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier at the Thomas More Institute, a Franco-Belgian think-tank, warned of “endemic insecurity between nations, or even a state of anarchy if the international public order disintegrates.”
“But outbidding on a mask delivery is more a case of competing for access to resources. It’s unfortunate but it’s not going to spark an outbreak of hostilities.”
Yet the competition can be “frightening,” as recounted by Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Motovylovets after a trip to China last month to secure a mask shipment.
“Our consuls who go to factories find their colleagues from other countries (Russia, USA, France) who are trying to obtain our orders,” he wrote on Facebook.
“We have paid upfront by wire transfer and have signed contracts. But they have more money, in cash. We have to fight for each shipment.”
And since only a handful of Chinese mask producers have export licenses, most have to use middlemen to sell to foreign buyers, vastly increasing the number of intermediaries in a seller’s market.
“We’re dealing with direct negotiations, over-the-counter deals, which are pragmatic during health emergencies but which often go hand-in-hand with favoritism, misappropriations and price gouging,” Laurence Folliot Lalliot, a public law professor in Paris, wrote in French daily Le Monde.
In Slovakia, Peter Pellegrini, prime minister until just a few days ago, said last month his government learned the hard way that when it comes to masks, cash is king.
“We were already preparing cash worth 1.2 million euros ($1.3 million) in a suitcase. We planned to use a special government flight and go get the masks” from a Chinese supplier, Pellegrini told a Slovakian TV channel.
“However, a dealer from Germany came there first, paid more for the shipment, and bought it,” he said.
Even within the European Union, tensions have prompted some governments to seize equipment destined for other countries.
Czech authorities last month took thousands of masks intended for Italian hospitals from “traffickers,” only to find out later the masks had been donated by China.
And French weekly L’Express reported that Paris, which has requisitioned all masks amid the shortage, seized stock from Swedish producer Molnlycke that was headed for Spain and Italy.
“We expect France to promptly cease the requisition of medical equipment and do what it can to ensure that supply chains and the transportation of goods are secured,” Sweden’s foreign ministry said in a statement to AFP on Friday.
“The common market has to function, particularly in times of crisis,” it said.
But as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, governments may find it hard to resist strongarm tactics, possibly even employing surreptitious means.
France’s Le Figaro daily reported last month that Israel’s Mossad spy agency was enlisted to secure coronavirus testing kits from an unidentified foreign country.


Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

Updated 08 July 2020

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

  • Devastated family mourn latest victim of health system struggling to cope with outbreak

NEW DELHI: The death of an expectant mom and her unborn child after 13 hospitals in one day refused to treat her has put India’s strained health care system under the spotlight.

The devastated husband and 6-year-old child of eight-month pregnant Neelam Singh, 30, are still struggling to come to terms with the “unwarranted loss” a month after her agonizing death in an ambulance outside a hospital in New Delhi.

With more than 100,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the Indian capital, Singh became another victim of a health system battling to cope with patient demand due to a lack of bed space and infrastructure.

That, however, has been little comfort for her family members who said they would never be able to overcome the trauma.

“Those 12 hours were the most traumatic experience of our lives, and we have to live with that trauma,” Shailendra Kumar, Singh’s brother-in-law, told Arab News on Tuesday. Singh had developed complications with her pregnancy on June 5, and Kumar said she was rushed to the same hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh where she had been going for regular checkups, but was turned away.

“Shivalik (hospital) gave no reason for refusing to admit her. Despite our pleadings, the hospital did not budge from its stand,” Kumar added.

A day-long ordeal ensued, with one hospital after the other unable to treat her. Eventually, she died in an ambulance some 35 kilometers away from her home in Khoda.

“I took her to 13 hospitals, both government and private facilities, and every one refused to admit her. The image of her writhing in pain will always haunt me,” said Kumar, who was accompanied by Singh’s husband. He added that the reasons provided varied from “high costs” to a lack of facilities.

“One hospital told me that I could not pay the high cost so better try my luck somewhere else. At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida, I was asked to buy a coupon for COVID-19 treatment for 4,500 rupees ($60), which I did, but still, they refused her entry. It was not the loss of one life but two lives,” he said, referring to her unborn child.

He pointed out that the entire family was in a state of shock following her death with her husband “the worst impacted.”

Kumar filed a complaint against Shivalik and other hospitals but said so far “no action has been taken.”

A day after Singh’s death, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, which Noida falls under, ordered an inquiry and issued instructions for all hospitals “to admit patients regardless of the nature of the case.”

However, 20 days later, on June 26, a similar incident was reported in the Dadri area of Noida.

On that occasion, 21-year-old Robin Bhati had developed a fever, and relatives had taken him to a nearby hospital where a week earlier he had been admitted suffering from influenza. However, the hospital refused to admit him and referred him to a different facility.

Five hours and four hospitals later, a city hospital agreed to take him in, but by then Bhati was already seriously ill and hours later he died after suffering a heart attack.

“We don’t know whether he was a COVID-19 patient or not, but why should hospitals refuse to admit a patient in need of immediate attention,” his uncle Jasveer Bhati told Arab News. A number of the Noida hospitals which allegedly denied admission to Singh and Bhati refused to comment on the cases.

In a statement on Monday, the office of Noida’s chief medical officer said: “Strict instructions have been given to all the private and government hospitals to admit all patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Dr. Loveleen Mangla, a pulmonologist working with Noida-based Metro Hospital and Heart Institute, said: “The government did not prepare itself to face this situation. Now the government is trying to create extra beds and medical facilities, but it’s late. They should have done this three months ago when the nationwide lockdown started.

“With the entire medical infrastructure overstretched and not many quality health workers available in the government hospitals, it’s a grim scenario now,” Mangla added.

With more than 723,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, India is now the world’s third worst-affected country after the US and Brazil, with approaching 21,000 people losing their lives.

And the problem is not unique to northern India.

On Saturday, the southern Indian city of Bangalore reported the case of 50-year-old Vasantha, who was rejected by 13 hospitals before she was accepted by the K.C. General Hospital where she eventually died.

Lalitha, a relative of Vasantha, said: “Some hospitals said they didn’t have beds; some said they didn’t have COVID-19 testing facilities, and that way we lost critical hours. She died because of a problem with her respiratory system.”

Experts have questioned whether health care facilities in India are being overstretched purely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a Delhi-based independent researcher in global health, policy and bioethics, said: “Is there a real shortage of beds or is it the shortage caused by lack of efficient management? If the cases increase further, we might find it difficult to provide care.”