COVID-19 Second wave: Goa

In battle of egos between Sawant and Rane, people lose

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Chief Minister Pramod Sawant in a personal protective equipment suit (left) speaking to COVID-19 patients at Goa Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) in Panjim after 26 patients in the hospital died in the early morning that day. Photo: AFP

The shortage of vaccines and oxygen weakens the fight against COVID in Goa and the conflict between the Chief Minister and Health Minister does not help mend matters.

In May 2020, when the country was experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths were rising, Goa declared itself a “green zone” State with not a single case. The green period, however, was short-lived. Within a few weeks, the virus’ rampage reached the tiny sunshine State. Not only did people begin falling ill rapidly, Goa, like other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States, also fell victim to mismanagement of the pandemic.

A year later, on May 12, 2021, Goa reported an alarming single-day high of 2,865 cases and 70 deaths. In a shocking incident a day before, 26 COVID patients died in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the Goa Medical College and Hospital (GMCH). Chief Minister Pramod Sawant was unwilling to say what caused the deaths, but after visiting the hospital he said he would ensure that the GMCH and three other state-run hospitals would not run out of oxygen and that not a single patient would die because of oxygen shortage.

According to the State government portal on COVID, there were 1,874 deaths as of May 13. There has been a total of 1,27,637 cases, and 32,791 of these remain active. The recovery rate is 72.8 per cent and the case fatality rate (CFR) 1.5 per cent. Additionally, 82,882 out of every 10 lakh people in Goa have tested positive.

Also read: Oxygen availability in Goa ‘quite grim’, alarming rise in the number of COVID fatalities

A senior doctor at the GMCH told Frontline: “We were in a position to manage the virus. We have enough oxygen and the necessary infrastructure as this is a small State. However, politics and the egos of senior leaders have led to this tragic situation where patients are dying because of their shenanigans. Right from the beginning they have mismanaged the situation. To begin with, the price of testing is too high. Until recently it was Rs.2,500. This deterred people from taking the test, so they would come in too late, or not at all, and therefore the spread took place faster. Oxygen is available, but given the scale of the crisis, the State should have helped with transportation. The cylinders are being transported by tractor, obviously it is taking hours to reach the GMCH!”

Activists point out that Goa had initially closed its borders but had to open up during what is known as the “season” because the State’s economy relies heavily on tourism. From October 2020 to March 2021, lakhs of people from across the country entered the State, which is a popular tourist destination. Rowena Fernandes, a hotel owner in Assagoa, said that although there were attempts to maintain safety protocols, the numbers triggered a spread and health care facilities were under pressure. “It was a hard call for the government. Goa could not afford a total lockdown. People’s livelihoods were at stake. As it is we just have six to eight months to earn an income. But we are seeing the consequences of opening our borders,” she said.

In April 2021, even as the situation worsened with close to 550 cases a day, Sawant ruled out another severe lockdown because tourism and industrial activity could not be stopped. In public appeals, he exhorted people to follow strict protocols – wear masks and refrain from gathering in large numbers. More recently, he announced that people would be given the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin as a prophylactic as there were claims that it could reduce the severity of the illness. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that these were unproven claims. Sawant has said the government will procure enough vaccines to inoculate the State’s population. However, for now the vaccination drive has all but halted in the State.

Sawant’s detractors say his strategies are flawed and dangerous. Vijay Sardesai, leader of Goa Forward and one-time ally of the BJP, said: “This government has blood on its hands. The in-fighting in the BJP, particularly the public battle between Sawant and [Vishwajit] Rane, is taking lives. At what cost are they fighting? And thoughtless policies such as Ivermectin use has reduced Goa to a national joke.”

Also read: Pandemic second wave deepens into unprecedented crisis

Indeed, the conflict between Sawant and Rane, State Health Minister, has added to the crisis. Following the GMCH deaths, Rane told the media that Sawant was “misguided” and demanded a High Court probe into the crisis. He subsequently refused to attend meetings on oxygen management, said a hospital source. Rane loses no opportunity to attack Sawant and expose his incompetency. A senior Congress leader from Goa said: “In the COVID context Rane may be playing a dangerous game as lives are at stake. There are allegations that the Health Minister is setting up people to criticise the CM to ensure his downfall. That he has ambitions for the top is well known. But at what cost?”

In fact, even the Goa High Court has rapped Sawant and Rane over their clashes. While hearing public interest litigation (PILs) petitions on several issues dealing with the pandemic, the court told the politicians that “this is not the time for politics”. In a significant development, a bench of Justices M.S Sonak and Nitin Sambre held a hearing on May 12 to discuss a petition filed by a group of activists asking for a common platform for information on the availability of hospital beds, ICUs and oxygen and on a possible lockdown. Senior bureaucrats, the Advocate General of Goa, the GMCH dean and several lawyers and activists attended the three-hour session. Responding to the arguments and justifications by the State, the court told the government that it did not want to hear of any more deaths caused by lack of oxygen. The bench said: “Article 21 will be completely violated if we allow people to die for want of oxygen…. We are long past the stage of determining whether patients are suffering from the lack of oxygen or not. The material placed before us establishes that patients are indeed suffering and, in some cases, succumbing for want of oxygen in the State of Goa.”

Meanwhile, Goa’s village panchayats, known to be extremely proactive, have been announcing individual lockdowns. A local resident said it was perhaps best to fight the pandemic at the community stage. He said that until a few years ago Goa was considered a progressive State. It had efficient primary health centres, a thriving local economy and a culture that was envied across the country. “Sadly, due to pathetic politicians who have no vision, the State has gone to seed. Had the primary health centres been roped in to test and treat, we may have seen a different picture in the State.”

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