Just two months ago, a Chinese ordinary wheelchair was selling for Tk4,000-Tk4,500 in Chattogram. The same wheelchair now costs between Tk5,000 and Tk5,500. A blood sugar monitor is selling for Tk1,500, which is Tk300 higher than its regular price.
Like wheelchairs and blood sugar monitors, almost all other healthcare items imported from China have become costlier in the port city.
Importers say no Chinese items have arrived in Bangladesh since the coronavirus outbreak. Yet demand for Chinese products is very high. Interestingly, similar items that come from India have not gone up in price.
Healthcare items imported from China include blood pressure machines, nebulisers, weight scales, slimming belts, waist pain reduction belts, surgical belts and various chemicals.
All these items are available in shops at Hazari Goli, which is a big wholesale medicine market in Chattogram, but are being sold at inflated prices.
Shahadat Hossain, manager of Taj Scientific, an importer, told The Business Standard that the firm has not got delivery of the products for which it had opened LCs before the coronavirus outbreak. "That is why we cannot sell surgical items at regular prices."
Importers have not even been able to open any new LC for importing medical equipment from China over the past one month. As a result, prices of healthcare products are increasing every day.
"We have to buy products from other importers at high prices. As a result, we ourselves are in trouble," said Md Mishu, proprietor of Asha Surgical, another importer, adding there will be a dire shortage of Chinese healthcare products if the situation persists.
Meanwhile, retailers are pointing fingers at a syndicate for the increase in prices.
Cashing in on the coronavirus issue, they said, some businessmen have created an artificial crisis in order to raise the prices of Chinese healthcare products.
Md Saifuddin, owner of Apollo Surgical, a retailer in Chattogram Medical College Hospital area, said that Chinese medical products dominate the market. All items made in China have become costlier since the coronavirus outbreak.
Student Rabiul Hossain was buying a mask from a drug store in the area. "I have to pay Tk25 for a mask which normally costs Tk5. Thus, businessmen use any excuse to raise prices and we, the common people, become the victims."
According to the Directorate General of Drug Administration, several companies, including JMI, produce surgical items in the country. But more than 95 percent of the equipment is imported.
Surgical equipment and medical devices include urine bags, vein scanners, insulin syringes, saline infusion sets, blood transfusion sets, IV cannula, coronary artery stents, pacemakers, artificial heart valves, artificial prostheses, oxygen and oximeters.
Nearly 90 percent of medical equipment is imported from China and India. Apart from that, such items are also imported from various other countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, Russia and Switzerland, the US and the UK.
Businessmen have noted that there was a vacation from January 24-30 in China on the occasion of the Chinese New Year, when Chinese businesses remained closed. Many businesses could not resume their activities due to the coronavirus outbreak. That is why Bangladeshi importers cannot make any new booking.
Samir Kanti Sikder, president of Bangladesh Chemists and Druggists Association of Chattogram, told The Business Standard that the association has been looking for alternative sources to import medical items.
Najer Hossain, vice-president of Consumers' Association of Bangladesh, said, "There are countries which can be alternatives to China. Businessmen can import the medical items from those places. Instead, they have increased the prices by cashing in on the coronavirus issue to augment their profits."
He said a racket has been making profits by taking advantage of a human issue of healthcare. "They have raised the prices of medical equipment without taking humanitarian aspects into consideration. And the drug administration has not taken any action against them."
Hossain Md Imran, an assistant director of the drug administration, said, "Some unscrupulous businessmen have increased prices by creating an artificial crisis. But there is enough medicine and healthcare equipment in the market. A drive will be conducted soon against these businessmen."