Nepal earthquake: government to investigate profiteering[courtesy: The Guardian]

  by in Delhi and in Kathmandu

Injured forced to pay for hospital treatment despite government’s no-fee order and price hikes reported for vital medical supplies, water and food

Nepal's earthquake survivors queue for food at a refugee camp in Kathmandu.

The Nepalese government has ordered an investigation of reports of profiteering in the aftermath of the earthquake 12 days ago that killed nearly 8,000 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless .

Shambhu Koirala, director general of the Department of Commerce and Supply Management, told the Guardian they had launched a major monitoring of suppliers of medical supplies and everyday foodstuffs that are scarce, after receiving a series of complaints of prices being doubled or tripled.

This would now be extended to hospitals, Koirala said. “We have been receiving many complaints on medical stores, water and other regular food,” he said. “Also, we are getting reports that private hospitals are extorting money from the patients.”

In recent days, the department has found evidence of wrongdoing in at least eight medical and food stores in Kathmandu, the capital. “We found face masks being sold up more than 300%, and surgical equipments at least 50% more than the price,” he said.

“Even with the bottled water, we found it was being sold at more than 100% than the exact amount, and many were even date expired.”

NGOs have reported attempts to sell them tarpaulins, currently in very short supply, for three or four times the usual price. Huge quantities of tarpaulins are needed in Nepal. About 519,000 houses have been damaged or destroyed.

The United Nations said on Friday it had received just $22m (£14.3m) of the $415m it had appealed for in Nepal, and called for aid contributions to be dramatically increased.

Jamie McGoldrick, UN resident co-ordinator for Nepal, warned of a race against time to deliver relief supplies to remote areas – some of which are accessible only on foot – before heavy monsoon rains arrive, expected in June. Rescue efforts are still underway in remote villages in the mountainous Langtang valley.

“Of the requested $415m to support immediate humanitarian interventions, only $22.4m was received. This needs to be dramatically ramped up,” McGoldrick told reporters in Kathmandu.

The aid effort has faced a series of logistic, bureaucratic and political obstacles with many thousands of people in remote areas still without assistance nearly two weeks after the tremor. Nepal’s only international airport is severely congested.

Infighting within the government has also caused severe problems. In many places, the government machinery appears to have entirely broken down, or has only been functioning fitfully.

Earthquake victims claim they have paid large sums for treatment to private hospitals despite a government order two days after the disaster that no fees should be charged.

“We have been getting reports that some of the hospitals are still charging money,” Dr Guna Raj Lohani, a senior official at Ministry of Health said. “Now, we are launching a thorough check in the hospitals.” Most victims of the tragedy were poor, as cheaper and older housing suffered most in Kathmandu while deprived rural districts such as Gorkha, Rasuwa and Sindupalchok were devastated.

Laxmi Maya Shrestha, 40, took her two daughters Sapana, 8, and Sabina, 6, to Alka hospital, Kathmandu, on 26 April for injuries sustained in landslides triggered by the earthquake in Ramechhap district, around 150km east of the capital.

Both Sabina’s hands and legs are broken while her younger sister suffered a fractured leg. Local doctors said the girls could not be treated locally. “I have been hearing that the medication is free for injured people in earthquake but it’s not happening practically,” Shrestha said. “I have already spent 100,000 rupees (£630) for their treatment and ambulances in the past 12 days. I am completely bankrupt now … and still they are not cured.”

Kumar Thapa, head of the hospital, said they only received the order to provide free treatment on 3 May, five days after it was issued. “If anyone comes with the bills then we will reimburse their money,” Thapa said. He admitted however that no steps had been taken to inform patients about their rights to be repaid.

Another earthquake victim claimed he had spent seven hours waiting for treatment at a private hospital because he could not prove he had funds. Lohani said the government had placed a limit of Rs25,000 on the value of the free treatment. “We are working on providing more, but haven’t decided yet,” he said.

The quake has affected 8 million of Nepal’s 28 million people, with at least 3 million needing tents, water, food and medicines over the next three months, said the UN. Addressing parliament today, Sushil Koirala, the prime minister of Nepal, said the government would rebuild all the collapsed schools, hospitals, and other government buildings within two years, and cultural sites within five. Many hundreds of temples and palaces have been destroyed or badly damaged.

Koirala, 75, who has been repeatedly criticized for his weak response to the crisis, also pledged to distribute an identity card for “earthquake affected people” which would give them “priority for employment”. Free education would also be provided to those who have lost their parents in the earthquake, and compensation of Rs100,000 given to relatives of casualties and twice as much to those who had lost their homes, Koirala told parliamentarians.

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