How Pramod Sawant's Failure Led to Goa Becoming the State With the Highest Positivity Rate

Even as locals died, the parties went on in the beach belt, the casinos rolled on and the municipal elections became a priority.

Panaji: Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant’s response to an order of the high court on Thursday, May 6, demonstrates how he still does not get the enormity of the COVID-19 crisis that has brought the smallest state in the country to its knees by his government’s mishandling. 

Pulling up the state for its failure to impose even “minimum restrictions” to contain the epidemic when the test positivity rate has spiralled to 52% (the highest in the country), the high court of Bombay at Goa said travel to Goa would require a COVID-19 negative certificate from May 10. The order was “impractical to implement,” Sawant said, though Maharashtra next door imposed such restrictions on entry from Goa weeks ago.

Nearly 4,000 new COVID-19 infections were recorded in Goa on Thursday, the highest single-day count. The last 48 hours have claimed 129 lives. Goa has lost 1,502 persons to COVID-19 so far and total infections have scaled past 108,267. A staggering number for a population of 1.5 million where the virus has run through one in 15 people already since the start of the pandemic.

How did we get here?

A fortnight ago, the Goa CM was on the BJP’s pet channel adding weight to Republic TV’s “stay strong India” campaign. No way would he be shutting down this tourist destination to business, he said, bragging that he could both run the economy and keep the pandemic in check. Even after dozens of their staff members tested positive, casinos were allowed to roll on (with the hotels, they were ordered to shut only on April 29), the beach belt buzzed with late night parties and the state’s borders remained open to all red zone states. As the country’s cases soared, Goa’s beaches ran packed with mask-less Indian tourists letting their hair down, chilled beer in hand, basking in sun and sand. 

Taking a cue from Sawant’s open house policy, some high-end hotels peddled “lockdown” packages eager to cash in on those wanting a quick escape from their locked in existence in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, without a thought to the outcome of a virus that travels so insidiously and so freely.

“Is Goa on a suicide mission?” a leading physician who put out an appeal cautioning for better sense to prevail, asked.

“If you make SOPs (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.” This was the BJP’s ports minister Michael Lobo’s sentiment last month.

No surprises there. Lobo’s Calangute constituency is powered by the engines of tourism. The minister owns a half dozen resorts and restaurants himself. By late April, Calangute was beginning to suffer the consequences of the heavy influx of mask-free tourists during a pandemic. Goa’s famous watering holes on the North Goa coast, Calangute, Baga, Candolim turned into hotspots of COVID-19 infections. 

In defiance of the CM’s SOPs, Lobo has now been compelled to impose a strict lockdown in all the panchayats in his constituency “to break the chain of infections”.  Dozens of other panchayats across Goa, including the ones in the chief minister’s constituency, Sanquelim, have followed suit, leaving Sawant to feebly protest that the “self-lockdowns” were likely to create panic. 

Bhivpachi garaz na” – ‘no need to worry’ – a Konkani phrase the Goa chief minister has often thrown about through the scale up of the pandemic best defines his inability to grasp the scale of the crisis and the gravity of the situation. To put it bluntly, he lacks not just competence and intelligence but sensitivity too.

Gloating over the BJP’s performance in recent elections to civic bodies – which turned out to be super-spreaders of the virus –Sawant basked in self-congratulatory advertisements that ran to full pages in the local dailies on his birthday (April 24) even as the virus devastated the state and overloaded its stretched healthcare system.

Also read: COVID-19 Deaths in India Are Rising the Fastest In the World: Data

“We’re seeing three times the number of cremations we would normally handle in a month,” an official told The Wire. This grim figure underscored the incongruity of the double spread advertisement in The Navhind Times calling Sawant “an exemplary leader with uncommon wisdom and remarkable vision”.

Those two pages alone ran 11 photographs of the chief minister, some in four column size.

“The buck stops at the CM’s door. People are dying because of his mismanagement of the crisis. Sawant should show some self-respect and resign,” Goa Forward Party (GFP) leader Vijai Sardessai said. A GFP member is party to the slew of public interest petitions that resulted in the HC’s Thursday order. A pressure group close to Sawant attempted to pin the blame on health minister Vishvajit Rane instead.

Seen as an “outsider” within the saffron party, Vishvajit, the son of the former Congress chief minister Pratapsingh Rane flipped to the BJP in Manohar Parrikar’s time. “Rane at least understands what needs to be done, though he too could have done more after the warning that a second wave was likely to hit us,” a medical official said. 

The fact that civil society groups, lawyers and concerned citizens had to move courts to get the Goa government to act “in the public interest” during a crisis of this dimension ultimately shows the level of inadequacy and inertia in the state’s BJP leadership.