Nandkumar M Kamat
Let us be very clear on one point -there is no such thing as full recovery after COVID19 infection. The so-called “recovered” patients would experience some health complications in life. It is a price every “recovered” patient may have to pay. So, let us not get impressed by the numbers of “recovered” patients. Their health status needs to be monitored for several months. But it is a good thing if some of them volunteer to donate their anti COVID19 antibody rich plasma to GMC. That would save many lives and establishing a plasma bank is an excellent step taken by Health Minister Vishwajit Rane.
However, Goa is rapidly sliding into an abyss of indecisiveness because the stakeholders here are not very clear about exactly what they want – health, security and safety of the people or beginning of robust economic activity by behaving as if everything is normal?
We have seen how the USA is suffering when economic compulsions weigh more than anything else. Goa is now following the USA model after the unlockdown. Perhaps the government and economic stakeholders are willing to take risks and may have calculated the price to be paid in terms of COVID19 related morbidity and mortality. But let me warn them -they could panic in a few weeks when a point of no return could be reached and a second wave could hit Goa.
We suffered a lot and everyone hates lockdowns but then how do you stop free movement and mixing of the people after the unlockdown? With about 90 thousand tests done the COVID19 detection rate is about two and half per cent. It means at this rate if the full population of Goa about 16 lakhs is tested then theoretically the government would find 40-45000 COVID19 positive cases. But only less than 3000 cases are detected. This also implies that we still have 37-42000 asymptomatic COVID19 potential carriers moving around all over Goa. It is this predictable number which would finally decide our fate. How do you make these 37-42000 untested people sit at home without a lockdown?
Even Dharavi- Mumbai, the largest slum in Asia with a population less than half of Goa has performed better in controlling COVID19 with stringent measures. When novel, lethal, infectious coronaviruses are present even briefly in air let us be clear on one fundamental aspect –you cannot control the transmission and spread by permitting free movement and mixing of the people as is happening since June 1. After initial enthusiasm to fine violators during the lockdown the Goa Police are now completely ignoring the violations. They would go back to their job if a lockdown is imposed and people are disciplined. Goa is smaller in area than hundreds of districts in the country. Let us assume that a Collector were to be in charge of Goa then by now there would have been an extended lockdown. This is seen in all COVID19 affected districts outside Goa.
It is now becoming increasingly clear to microbiologists like me that the administration does not really understand how coronaviruses spread through three modes and how a local variant of COVID19 could be creating havoc. The government needs to send representative preserved viral RNA containing samples for molecular identification to central government laboratories like CCMB for getting clarity on the genetic nature and serotype of the local COVID19 strain. If the local strain gets correctly identified then the RT PCR tests would be more precise.
The Government of Goa has committed a major blunder by not undertaking comprehensive high frequency talukawise mass testing during the period of the lockdown or till June 30. For a state of less than two million this was possible over two to three months. The ICMR too has woken up very late to understand the wisdom behind mass testing. The Goa government has adopted a need based firefighting approach of selective testing in and around an area where COVID19 cases get reported. This is purely an academic exercise based on the assumption that there is no movement of people from the COVID19 positive hotspots.
Nearly 500 Covid positive cases in four days last week is not anybody’s idea of unlockdown. Once you look at the geographical distribution of COVID19 cases you know instantly that this has happened due to the travel, free movement and mixing of the people from last week of May and first week of June. Till the end of May people indeed had taken the lockdown very seriously. The situation after unlockdown has completely deteriorated in Goa because of increasing movement of the people all over the state. From a rate of 214 cases per million on June 10 now Goa has reported more than 1,400 cases per million.
How then the state continues to be in ‘Green zone’? This means that the government had already decided to act under powerful economic compulsions as the revenue streams dried up and the central government did not release adequate funds. There are still numerous economic activities which need not be impacted by any future lockdowns. All agro-horticultural operations can continue. Industrial estates could be subjected to mass testing of all the workers and on case by case basis individual units can function. Therefore, it is first important to establish a permissible or Green category of economic activities which would not be affected by any lockdown.
Actually, the tourism season in Goa begins from October and reaches a peak in December-January and then in May. So it is still not clear why a special announcement for opening tourism during the time of the pandemic from July was made. Hundreds of rich and super rich people intend to escape from various red and orange zones and report to Goa as tourists. Every week private jets are ferrying such wealthy tourists to Goa. Various factors make Goa vulnerable- some of these include high population density, high urbanization, high mobility of people due to high vehicular density, congested bus stands and markets, the unstoppable party and picnic culture, liberal use of closed indoor air-conditioned premises to hold meetings etc. In conclusion there seems to be no way out of this pandemic labyrinth unless Goa declares an extended lockdown with strict border controls and high frequency mass testing till August 31 to deny any new host for COVID19. As long as people travel, move, mix and work freely COVID19 would find new hosts. Once no host is left in the state to infect COVID19 would be automatically defeated.