On Monday afternoon, as Madhuri Jethi and her friends waited for customers at their vegetable stalls in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, one topic dominated their conversation: the difficulty of finding hand sanitisers and face masks in medical stores around the city.

“The school that my grandchildren go to has told them they have to carry these masks and sanitisers, but they are not available anywhere,” said Jethi, a middle-aged hawker who had never heard of sanitisers before the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus took over Indian news. Her grandsons study in a Catholic school in the neighbourhood, and Jethi claims her son and daughter-in-law had to scout through at least a dozen chemist stores for three days before they managed to buy simple masks. “But they have not been able to find sanitisers yet.”

In the past 12 days, coronavirus – officially known as Covid-19 – has infected at least 60 people in India, with cases being reported from Kerala, Delhi, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Globally, it has spread to over 60 countries, infecting 1.1 lakh people and killing over 4,000.

Panic about the spread of coronavirus has triggered a sharp spike in demand for protective gear like face masks and sanitisers in countries around the world, and India has been no exception. Since the beginning of March, retail pharmacies and major e-commerce portals have reported running out of stock for sanitisers and masks. Some shops have been accused of hoarding them and selling them at inflated prices.

This triggered an official cracked down on medicine shops in Delhi where, over the weekend, the drug control authorities suspended licenses of five chemists in Ghaziabad that were selling sanitisers and masks at eight to ten times the regular price. They also raided 70 shops in Gurgaon, seizing 3.5 lakh N-95 masks and 2,500 bottles of hand sanitisers that will now be sold at discounted rates from other shops.

While no such raids have been conducted in Mumbai, chemist stores in the city have also run out of hand sanitisers in the past week.

No fresh stock in sight

“Because of coronavirus, even people who did not know what a sanitiser is are now coming and asking for it,” said Bharat Jain, the manager of Kamal Chemists in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb. Jain claims the store has been out of stock for sanitisers for the past five days, and has received no assurances from his suppliers about when fresh stock will be available.

Jain claims his shop stocks sanitisers only from bigger, well-known brands, supplies of which have come to a halt over the past few days. Other drug stores, like Glorious Pharmacy in the suburb of Santacruz, have been trying to keep up with the demand for sanitisers by selling lesser-known local brands that are around Rs 30 cheaper than the bigger brands.

The chemists that Scroll.in spoke to claimed that hand sanitisers are largely being sold at the maximum retail price printed on the bottle. Face mask prices, however, have shot up. “Distributors who sold us basic masks for Rs 3 a piece are now selling it for Rs 18, Rs 20, so we have to raise our prices too,” said a salesperson from a medical store in Andheri.

Premal Mehta, the secretary of the Andheri Chemists’ Association, claimed that the demand for sanitisers had risen significantly in the past week largely because of panic among schools. “Because of coronavirus, many schools have made it mandatory for children to carry sanitisers with them,” said Mehta. “It is hard to meet that kind of demand.”

‘Precaution is necessary’

Not all schools in Mumbai have been expecting students to buy masks and sanitisers, but chemists claim that a general misconceptions about sanitisers have contributed to panic purchasing.

“Many people have been thinking that sanitisers have to be used instead of soap and water to wash hands,” said Bharat Jain. “News channels on TV do not help by spreading the right information. Most of them are just spreading more panic.”

Gautam Kamle, an office assistant from Andheri, is among those who had temporarily fallen prey to such misinformation. “I had heard on Whatsapp that meat causes coronavirus and that we should start using sanitiser instead of soap, so my family had stopped eating chicken and I bought a small sanitiser for my son,” said Kamle, whose child is six years old.

Last week, however, Kamle’s employers at an accounting firm debunked the myth about meat causing the disease and told him not to rely on sanitisers so heavily. “I am not really worried about the disease now, we will see if it comes here to Mumbai,” said Kamle.

Imran Khan, the pharmacist at Glorious Pharmacy in Santacruz, has had to explain to some customers not to replace hand-washing with sanitisers. “But I don’t think that people’s panic is unreasonable,” said Khan. “Precaution is necessary at a time like this.”