It may be politically convenient to re-open Goa for tourist gaiety and talk up the Goan mood ahead of polls but laxity on covid protocols has revived memories of the second wave’s horrors
A distinct pall of dread gripped Goa this week, after its state government abruptly threw open casinos, spas and massage parlours that had been closed since April. Chief minister Pramod Sawant’s controversial decision came in the wake of his dubious declaration last week that “we have in fact vaccinated 102% of the population", which was nonetheless followed by plaudits from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claimed, “Goa is among the few international tourist destinations where people have received the protection of the vaccine. We all wish there should be the same tourism activity as before."
All this fanfare strikes state residents as uncomfortably reminiscent of the debacle which played out as India’s smallest state went rapidly downhill from being hailed the country’s first covid-free “green zone" to a full-blown pandemic emergency, with some of the highest positivity numbers recorded anywhere in the world.
The lowest point in this unremitting chronicle of a debacle came in May, when it almost accidentally emerged that crowds of patients were struggling to breathe—with many dying outright—due to inadequate oxygen supply at Goa Medical College.
After the daily death count spiked to 75, Sawant made a flying visit to the state’s main healthcare facility, where he boasted, “I’m probably the first chief minister in the country to visit a covid-19 ward," then unsubtly blamed his own health minister for the crisis while declaring “the problem will be solved in a day" now that he had control. But the carnage continued nonetheless.
By this point, Goa’s health minister Vishwajit Rane was busily shifting the blame back onto his boss, to the point of making an extraordinary request that the state high court probe his own portfolio to “investigate the reason behind these deaths." Judges did try to wade in, but they too could make no headway. The bench wound up issuing an unprecedented apology on 12 May: “We have failed to save lives. We are sorry."
Even that is not all in these annals of misgovernance, because, at the deadly peak of the ‘second wave’, the health minister drew international ridicule by announcing he was providing all above-18 residents of Goa with an ample supply of the deworming medication Ivermectin, which they were urged to begin immediately “irrespective of any symptoms or anything". Two months later, he again drew jeers by backtracking on himself to officially certify “no deaths have been directly attributed to the lack of oxygen."
Similar shades of magical thinking were seen in the Prime Minister’s interaction with a carefully-vetted selection of Goa’s healthcare workers last weekend. “Think about it—hotel industry, taxi drivers, hawkers, shopkeepers—when they are all vaccinated, even tourists will come with a feeling of safety," said Modi, adding that “over 2.5 crore people received the vaccine yesterday and after 12 at night, a political party had reactions, their fever was rising. Iska koi logic ho sakta hai kya (Can there be any logic in it)?"
Many residents of Goa fear that it’s this kind of unnecessary politicization of the pandemic that lurks behind Sawant’s move to expand tourism even as the medical establishment is warning of an incipient ‘third wave’ of covid. With state elections due early next year, it is already full-on campaign season, with party leaders—Devendra Fadnavis, P. Chidambaram, Arvind Kejriwal—conspicuously moving around the state at the same time.
“They probably think they’re hedging their bets," says Albertina Almeida, a veteran advocate and human rights activist who coordinates an important covid citizen action group. “During this time, many people have lost their jobs, and others are in disguised employment with token incomes. Therefore, with elections approaching, the government wants to create a feel-good situation, so people can feel hopeful and forget their sufferings which the same government has made no effort to attenuate." She points out that “each time the statistics have shown a declining trend, the government opens up like it never heard of covid. Apart from the lack of monitoring, the cabinet members themselves violate protocols, and there is plenty of audio-visual documentation to prove this. On what basis can we trust the CM’s reassurances?"
The problem is a difference between words and actions, says Aakash Madgavkar, a cruise operator and vocal member of the Travel & Tourism Association of Goa. His company uses strict precautions, but “we have found it tough, as a lot of guests have asked us why we are doing all these measures while other river cruise operators are not following the same. So much so that guests have gone to other boats." Madgavkar says that “a lot of businesses are not implementing these standard operating procedures and government departments are not taking action. This casual and careless attitude is definitely a worry going forward, leading to the possibility of more waves, curfews and lockdowns which will harm the health and income of everyone. Strict enforcement is the key. The government has to ensure that all operators are doing what’s necessary to continue operating safely, and take action against those who don’t follow the guidelines."
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.
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