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PROFITEERING DURING A PANDEMIC

Focus: GS-II Governance

Introduction

Soon after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, prices of essential items shot up in several places across the country.

Overpricing and Profiteering cases

  • Reports emerged that in some private hospitals, patients were asked to pay lakhs even before being allotted beds and patients were also being overcharged even after State governments capped COVID-19 treatment charges.
  • The cost of medicines and other essential requirements like Masks and sanitizers too shot up (with resolution coming the form of Essential Commodities act being put into action for controlling prices).
  • During the lockdown, poor migrants who wanted to go home had to spend large amounts to hire vehicles.

Handling such situations in the past

  • Way back in 1897, the British enacted the Epidemic Diseases Act which empowered the government to implement any measures that would prevent the outbreak or spread of any disease.
  • According to the law, anyone disobeying the orders of any public servant can be punished under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

Steps taken by states

  • Some of the states have now set a cap on the tariff that can be charged by private hospitals for COVID-19 care.
  • Maharashtra was the first to fix a tariff, followed by Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.
  • Hospitals have been graded into categories, depending on facilities provided.
  • Making it a participatory process, the private sector was also co-opted into discussions on tariff.
  • States has also taken up action to fixing the rate of testing.

Way Forward

  • A provision can be incorporated in the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to make overcharging the public a punishable offence.
  • Denying admission in hospitals, refusing to bury the dead in cemeteries, etc., can be made punishable offences without reasonable explanations.
  • Cases of extortion in hospitals by holding ‘hostage’ – i.e., when hospitals hold the patient or the body in their custody until their bills are paid, should be taken up seriously.
  • Essential Commodities Act should be brought into action effectively and swiftly to control rise of prices due to increased demand and supply deficiency.
  • Governments should take steps to mitigate the effects of lack of supply of essential goods by provisioning special rules to ensure the transport of such goods is not affected.
  • The supply deficiency can also be tackled by taking steps to import from outside the boundary / encourage and enable production within the boundaries.
  • Citizens should be made aware of the serious implications of hoarding and rules to prevent hoarding can be implemented as an immediate response.

-Source: The Hindu

February 2023
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