Goa’s COVID Disaster: Tourism Before Healthcare & Welfare?

Goa has been touted as that place where, well, anything goes, owing to the government’s negligence. 

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

I recently watched the much-awaited ‘Snyder Cut’ of Justice League (2021). I remember, with absolute clarity, this one line that stood out for me from the film. It was a moment when the character of Diana Prince says: “People said the Age of Heroes would never come again.”

Clearly, it can’t possibly be true. Everywhere we look, we’re reminded that frontline workers are heroes, volunteers are heroes, people coming forward to serve their ailing community are heroes.

There’s no doubt that they are, but they certainly shouldn’t have to be. It is often a thankless job, and moreover, it is a great cover for the governmental incompetence that needed them to step up beyond the call of duty. If we’re being completely honest, nowhere does that ring true more, than the state of Goa.

The Heroes Who’ve Kept Goans Adrift Amid a Brutal Second Wave of COVID

It has been recorded that Delhi and Goa have the highest COVID-related deaths per one lakh people in the country. One in two people tests positive, and there are days where this relatively small state has to say goodbye to up to 70 of its residents at one go. It took us nearly a year to ring up 1,000 deaths. It took us just 19 days to hit the second 1,000. Let that sink in for a moment.

Currently, Goa’s official COVID-19 tally stands at 1,41,567 with 2,272 deaths. There has been recent optimism with the numbers seeming to be turning a corner, but one has now learnt to be cautious before giving in to feelings such as relief, joy and hope.

As things stand, the only things that truly bring us hope are the actions of individuals who have waded through the muck, mooring those who were cut adrift with fear and helplessness at their plight. Home chefs and restaurateurs who have been cooking meals, gratis, for those affected by COVID, volunteers who’ve worked around the clock to get patients what they need, people who’ve set up ready reckoners so that all needs can be addressed hassle-free, the list goes on. Shruti Chaturvedi is one such person to whom a large part of the state of Goa owes a debt of gratitude. She gladly discloses that the needs of the people caused her to put together her toolkit, as the urgency of the inquiries she received were in ‘panicked proportions’.


Unchecked Tourism

It was believed by many, that the primary cause for the alarming rise in cases was the fact that tourism was left unchecked, and that Goa had become a place where people could waltz in to forget the stress of ‘city life’, and live like the pandemic had skirted around the state, merely flirting with the idea of dropping into Goa for the weekend like every other partygoer. Even as the death toll mounted, as part of ‘Unlock 2.0’, Goa was nothing short of a saloon door in a spaghetti western that swung open for anyone good, bad or ugly.

Goa Govt’s Mishandling of COVID Crisis

When the government’s inability to understand the depths of the water that they were wading, nay sinking, in was questioned, the only rebuttal that seemed to be forthcoming from a member of the BJP Cabinet, Michael Lobo, was a feeble “If you make standard operating procedures stricter and you harass tourists, which tourist will come to Goa? We have to take precautionary measures, but at the same time, you cannot stop business because COVID-19 cases are increasing.”


Why then, we must surely ask, given his own stance on things, did Lobo go on to impose a lockdown across the panchayats in his constituency ‘to break the chain of infections’? It turns out that the people decided to rise, in an attempt to challenge the government’s blatant mismanagement, and set boundaries and requirements for their own safety.

Chief Minister, Pramod Sawant’s refrain that such ‘self-lockdowns are an overreaction that would cause some sort of panic’ are evident — and it seems that as far as movement to and from the state is concerned, despite everything, almost no lessons have been learnt on this front.

Even as the state reels under the its mammoth COVID surge, the state government has filed a petition with the Goa bench of /the Bombay High Court seeking the court to revoke the rule of procuring a negative RT-PCR report in order to enter the state.


Businesses Need to Operate, But Why No RT-PCR Reports for Entry into Goa?

I’m reminded of the words of Atish Fernandes, inextricably bound to the tourism industry through his company, First Class Holidays, and who runs one of India’s most popular watering holes, Joseph Bar, wherein he baldly stated:

“I think that businesses did need to operate, for which we would definitely have to welcome tourists; but that doesn’t mean that an RT-PCR to come into the state shouldn’t have been in place. In fact, any good and responsible holiday-maker would be happy to comply with safety measures. However, at the time that the call was taken to open once again, a lot of businesses had been struggling to cope for nearly 5-6 months. That pressure can skew the decision-making process. When it came to Joseph Bar, people asked how we managed to keep things in check. We halved our capacity, made sure that guests were seated in a manner that ensured as little contamination possible, and increased staff at this time to sanitise the space frequently. But this isn’t a model that can be applied to establishments of varying sizes.”
Atish Fernandes, Owner, First Class Holidays to The Quint

Goa’s medical infrastructure not in keeping with the reality of a second wave of such proportions either, despite having nearly a year to prepare for it. Healthcare basics at this time, are luxuries, as the most basic of rights, that of oxygen, is in short supply.


Is Goa Prepared for a Potential Third Wave?

The statistics aren’t in the state’s favour, and even if we manage to make peace now with the current scheme of things, experts tell us that a third wave is on the horizon, one that will hit children the hardest. My greatest hope, having spoken to one of Goa’s foremost physicians, Dr Antonio dos Rosarios Rodrigues, is that we have some time to plan. The good doctor says:

“We can see the third wave coming, but it is months away. There is still time to plan and prepare for it, projections show us that it could affect children, and the government can’t say that they couldn’t plan for this. I think the development of task forces and the like is precisely in keeping with this sentiment and the reaction to the outrage of the people.”
Dr Antonio dos Rosarios Rodrigues, Goa-based Physician to The Quint

Goa has literally been touted as that place where, well, anything goes, including large sections of its population, owing to the government’s negligence. Pramod Sawant’s now iconic phrase of “Kai bhivpache garaz na,” or “There is nothing to fear,” is a chicken the size of mastodon, which has come home to roost.

Unfortunately, the home that it’s roosting in isn’t his; but rather yours, mine, and that of every resident of Goa; and if we survive, it is not because of the government’s efforts, but rather, in spite of them.

The reason we have managed thus far, and will hopefully continue to endure, is because some people have chosen to (as Henry Gilbert is attributed to having written) ‘rise and rise again, until lambs have become lions.

(Fernando Monte da Silva is a writer, musician and award-winning photographer and blogger. He lives in Goa with his wife, Griselda, and their two dogs. He tweets @asilvaspoon. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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