When epidemic history repeats itself in Goa

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Sanjeev V Sardesai

Today’s article I wish to dedicate to the valiant COVID warriors in Goa, and elsewhere; and also, to those that have parted ways with their near and dear ones.

They say history repeats itself. Goa too has been a humbled victim in the past centuries, but the absence of the happenings of these epidemics, has failed to generate the required preventive response from its populace to face or avoid it. It is a sad reality that Goa, along with the rest of the world, is reeling under a tragic pandemic. Since time immemorial, this planet has been aggressively battered with a lot of calamities – some natural, but many of which are due to man-made causes. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us realise that it is time that we strengthen our bonds with our near and dear ones, and understand the fury of Mother Nature.

The panic that has been cast on Goans by the COVID pandemic could have been definitely lessened, and we could have faced it staunchly and fearlessly had we learned lessons from our past. The formation of the city of Panaji, the present capital of Goa, was a direct off-shoot and an aftereffect of repeated epidemics in the old capital of Portuguese Goa – Old Goa!

Before the arrival of the Portuguese Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, the region which we know as Old Goa today was controlled by the Adilshahi regime and was known as Ellapuri or Ella.

Foreign travellers who visited the conquered Goa soon after the conquest wrote that the city was encircled on four sides with a high wall of about a mile in length along the riverfront; and about three-fourth of a mile inland. Encompassed within these high walls was the city hosting its large populace.

This area within these high walls of Ellapuri was a settlement, as well as a well-founded market, patronised by traders from all over the world. As per information offered by late architect Lucio Miranda, during the era of the Adil Shah, there was an initial resident population and a sanitary infrastructure that could host maximum about 30,000 to 35,000 people. However, the scales tilted for the worst when the Portuguese conquered this land and set about expanding their resources, with scant respect for upgrading the basic infrastructure of the sanitary needs to cater to the increase of influx of people. This led to a collapse of the system and spread an epidemic of various diseases in the walled city. Thousands of people died due to lack of medical infrastructure. It was this one singular aspect which led to the Portuguese considering to shift their capital, first to Mormugao, but finally settling for Panjim or present-day Panaji, as their new capital. The seed for the new capital was initiated from Mala or Fontainhas.

The writer remembers, as a college student, having been taken to Divar Island for NSS work. During the afternoon break, when the students took a lunch break and loitered around, we came across a four feet deep trench dug to lay a water pipeline. On peering into this trench, we saw a lot of buried human bones. The elders there informed us that these were probably of those epidemic victims of Old Goa who were brought here across the River Mandovi and interned.

Realising the importance of a good medical facility, the Portuguese instituted the ‘Casa Santa de Misericórdia de Goa’ – a fine medical institution, literally meaning ‘Holy House of Mercy/ Charity in Goa’. It was established on August 15, 1498 in Lisbon by the Brotherhood of the Santa Casa de Misericordia, with the gifts and donations received from the Portuguese Crown and benevolence of the widows and noble philanthropists. Today we see the majestic building at Ribandar, facing the River Mandovi and Divar Island, right beside the old route to Old Goa from Panaji. If you see carefully above the main entrance, we can see the words ‘Casa Santa’ designed in laterite stones. Later this institute was to join hands with ‘Escola Médica-Cirúrgica da Nova Goa’ (Old GMC at Panaji) which was established in the year 1759 AD at Panelim, and later in 1801 introduced the three-year medical course. Its alumni were nominated as faculty in Mumbai and other prestigious institutions in surrounding areas of Portuguese Goa and its colonies. Today Goa boasts of a wonderful and huge super specialty medical complex at Bambolim, where it was shifted in 1993 and which is commonly known as Goa Medical College & Hospital.

In 1917-18, the Spanish Flu epidemic killed over 50-100 million people all over the world, and was to play an important part in Portuguese Goa. Goa was beset with this epidemic of Spanish Flu (or ‘gripe’ in Portuguese), which at that time was a very deadly disease, without any rapid cure. The administration did not realise the gravity of the situation, as this epidemic started to show its ugly signs, around 1917 in Bardez (North Goa), and seven-eight people died every day.

Only when the tolls started increasing in North Goa and spread to South, steps were taken to control the same. By that time, hundreds of people had died. A touching, yet simple memory to this huge toll of lives can be seen at Raia, in South Goa, as a short, square, masonry memorial pillar with a marble plaque, lying to the left of the route, between the path leading from the Church of Our Lady of Snows to its cemetery. The marble plaque has a simple notation

‘E M DAS VICTIMAS DE GRIPE DE 1918 P N A M’ (In Memory of the Victims of the 1918 Flu). Initially there was a cross atop this memorial, but over the time and lack of care, this is missing.

Recent discoveries of mass burials at Batim on Tiswadi Island and Salvador do Mundo (Saloi) in North Goa can portray a brief picture of the horror that must have enveloped Goa of yester years. Another such memorial that we can find is the ‘Bomoikarancho Khuris’, which literally means ‘The Cross of Bombay Residents’, found on the hills of the Socorro Plateau. The toll of victims was so high that an elderly resident, Ana Regina Fernandes, now residing at Malar on Divar Island, recounts that there was no place to bury in the Church cemetery. Bodies were literally dumped up on the hill side, in the open, where stands this ‘Bomoikarancho Khuris’. As time passed the scattered bones on the hill top, made a horrifying sight for people of Saloi, who went uphill to collect the cashew fruit during the summer holidays.

The rooms hired by Goans to stay in Bombay were called ‘kudds’ or ‘rooms’ and were identified as per the villages from where the residents stayed. And it was in the ‘Saloi Kudd’ that a decision was made and funds were collected to erect a cross at this site in their village in Goa. It was later that this cross was constructed and the bones deposited in the well of the chapel opposite this cross. A plaque was installed which is credited to the ‘Residents of the Saloi Club in Bombay’. Over a time, this cross came to be known as the ‘Bomoikarancho Khuris’ or ‘Cross of the Bombay People’.

In Batim, whole excavations were carried out as recently as in December 2001, and they found hordes of bones at a depth of around 1.2 meters. As is reported, an elderly villager narrates that: “People died like flies and bodies were piled in the cemetery”. He too lost his family members to the Spanish Flu.

 It is almost exactly a century since this tragedy of an epidemic took place engulfing the world. We are facing a similar pandemic – COVID-19 especially here in Goa. There seems to be a lot of familiarity between delayed decisions and the rising toll of residents. It is time we learn from our past, and live to explore the unexplored Goa!