As Peru reels from having the worst COVID-19 caseload in the world, criminals are extorting the families of patients in exchange for having access to the few ICU beds that remain.
On June 11, Peruvian police arrested three people in relation to the trafficking of intensive care unit (ICU) beds at two hospitals in the southern city of Arequipa.
A certified medical practitioner allegedly contacted former classmates in the industry to obtain the personal information of new COVID-19 patients in critical care at various hospitals in Arequipa, according to RPP Noticias. He then tried to extort the families of the patients, demanding up to 5,000 soles (around $1,265) in exchange for access to an ICU bed.
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Just a few days later, two more individuals were arrested for carrying out a similar operation at two other Arequipa hospitals in which 3,000 soles (some $757) were demanded per critical care patient in need of an ICU bed.
These are not the first such incidents in Peru. In April, two separate ICU trafficking incidents were investigated in Cusco and Lima, where criminals were able to demand upwards of 5,500 soles (around $1,388) for each ICU bed, providing preferential treatment to those who could afford it.
InSight Crime Analysis
ICU beds, fake vaccines, oxygen tanks - healthcare scams have seemed endless during the pandemic.
As hospitals quickly filled, many families in Mexico, Brazil and Peru were forced to treat their loved ones at home, leaving them to pay exorbitant amounts for oxygen. This led to the theft of cylinders from hospitals and production centers, extreme price gouging that placed the value of oxygen at over five times its original price and the illegal sale of oxygen cylinders created for industrial use, meaning it cannot be used for medical purposes.
Multiple Latin American countries have also seen the emergence of fake COVID-19 vaccines. In Mexico, criminal organizations set up fake vaccine production centers in the states of Jalisco, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, as well as in Mexico City. There is also concern that cartels may attempt to steal vaccines and then sell fake vaccines to the public in its place, under the guise of it being one of the real, stolen vaccines.
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In Brazil and Venezuela, drugs thought to reduce the symptoms of COVID-19 or treat the virus were smuggled and sold at sky-high prices to desperate customers. In Venezuela, a doctor was able to sell vials of remdesivir for $800 a vial. In Brazil, thousands of doses of hydroxychloroquine were smuggled into the country soon after President Jair Bolsonaro touted the drug, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence showing that it can actually treat COVID-19.
But despite these scams across the region, Peru seems to have suffered more than its neighbors. It has the highest number of COVID-19 related deaths per capita in the world, with an estimated 585 deaths per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine's Coronavirus Research Center.
Despite the distribution of over six million vaccine doses since early this year, Peru's Health Ministry reported a rapid spike in COVID-19 cases in late April, breaking weekly infection and death records.