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The coronavirus crisis and subsequent sudden nation-wide lockdowns in India saw many Goans, including seafarers, stranded far from their home state. With restrictions easing, many have managed to return. But their journey has been far from smooth they tell NT NETWORK

The long journey home in COVID times

DANUSKA DA GAMA | NT NETWORK

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has created ripples of fear all over the world while causing large scale loss of lives and livelihoods.

In Goa, among other problems during this time, was the issue of getting back stranded seafarers, Goans working abroad, and those stuck outside Goa.

Goans stranded outside the state breathed a sigh of relief when on May 2, as India went into lockdown 4.0, they could obtain a permit and return to the state, provided protocol was adhered to.

After much dialogue and protests, the first batch of seafarers also finally arrived in Goa on May 20 in three chartered flights. Subsequent flights landed on May 29.

The struggle to reach Goa

And while they are definitely happy to be back, the long wait and then journey home was fraught with uncertainty and tensions.

Twenty-three-year-old Valentino Fernandes from Aldona was onboard Costa Pacific when countries were sealing their borders and suspending international flights due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. Narrating his ordeal, he discloses that as the ship sailed from South America, they weren’t allowed to dock in France and thus had to set sail again.

“At most ports where passengers had to disembark;the ship was permitted to dock for only two days. By the time all the passengers disembarked, the cases across countries were rising, and India was under lockdown and thus we were stuck at La-Spezia for over two months,” says.

Their company however did everything possible to keep them safe while working to get them back to their homeland, says Fernandes. “We know how much our company negotiated and sent mails to all those they could, in an attempt to bring back stranded seafarers back,” he says.

Special chartered flights were finally allowed to fly back Goans. Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises and P&O cruises hired five chartered flights and two ships to bring back stranded Goans. The first flight to Goa reached on May 20. Fernandes was among those who landed on May 20. However, he only received his negative report for COVID on May 29, although the test was conducted on the day he landed.

During the journey too, he says, their parent company incurred huge costs, which in his opinion, the government should have borne. “Even breakfast was provided to us by Costa, at the airport too there was a counter put up to help us,” he says.

Reagan Carvalho who works as a photographer on a cruise liner also echoes a similar statement stating that his company ensured safety of the seafarers and took utmost care of them despite all odds, “I would like to thank my company and the people who supported us through these trying times,” he says.

Siddhesh Shetgaonkar who works in thefood and beverages service on a cruise liner says that even after he boarded the flight home, he remained anxious as he observed several loopholes and non adherence of guidelines, especially in India.

“There was no social distancing being maintained on the flight. The plane was small and we had to stop over and thus were in transit at Cairo (Egypt) and then in Muscat (Oman) for refilling fuel which was pretty scary,” he says.

An industrialist/builder Rishi who managed to return from UK mentions that the first 10 to 15 days after lockdown were the most stressful. “The uncertainty of getting back was a frustrating but then I accepted the fact that getting back to India was going take a long time,” he says. In the meantime, he started helping stranded Indians using his influence and experience to get cheaper accommodation and food.

His worries however got worse mid-April when his elderly mother who lives alone in Goa suffered a brain haemorrhage and was admitted in the ICU.“That’s when the whole nightmare started, Emails and tweets to the High Commission of India and Indian governmentto bring me back as soon as possible were all futile,” he says.

To make matters worse, Rishi who had been on holiday in the UK, was then asked to leave the hotel with just two days’ notice, without assistance for alternate arrangement.

When he finally got on the plane home, Rishi states, there was no social distancing maintained on the flight. Things got worse when they landed in Mumbai. “We were informed that there would be a bus to take us to Goa and were shell shocked to see that the bus didn’t have AC, was dirty, probably unutilised for months and probably not sanitised too,” he says.

It also pained Rishi to see a 78-year-old lady and another lady who was four months pregnant travelling in the group. “We refused to travel in this manner and then had to travel by the only other option provided – a Kadamba bus with fans. Desperate now we agreed to this and it came to `3000 per traveller,” he says. However, he says that he has no intention of blaming anyone or the government.

Student dentist Elaine D’Sa from Moira meanwhilewas stuck in Mangaluru for over 60 days in a room. “It was suffocating there without proper food and not being able to go out. All I wished for was to come home as soon as possible,” she says.

Having travelled back to Goa in the Shramik train she says that there was no social distancing maintained and every seat was occupied, thus increasing the chances of getting infected with the virus.

The ordeal of being quarantined

Having come from Italy, a hotbed for COVID-19, a few seafarers lament that though there was much hype that Goa was taking all measures to ensure people are safe and tested, they say that they were well taken care off on the ship. “There were utmost precautions in place on the cruise. Our temperature was checked twice a day. Also, we were giving adequate training and awareness about COVID -19 thus dispelling fear to some extent and myths that are still believed here in Goa,” one of them says.

Another seafarer mentions that they only encountered issueswhen they checked in at the quarantine facility. “Our temperature wasn’t checked while we were leaving. And the awareness among locals and those working at the facility is so poor that they were literally running away from us. I wish awareness and better sense prevails, and no wrong information spreads,” he says.

For the first two days of their stay at the quarantine facility, hot water was also not available. “We were served rice and watery dal for food even though it was all paid for. When we informed our company of the haphazard treatment being given, that too at a cost, our company helplessly told us to bear with what was happening, as the slightest issue made by us could impact the safe return of other seafarers,” he says.

The young D’Sa like several other returnees expected to be sent home within five-six hours, but to their dismay had to spend a night at the quarantine facility. “The food was not good and the rooms weren’t hygienic,” she says.

“It wasn’t fair that paid quarantine facility was imposed for us. Are we not Goans?”, asks Fernandes before adding that their company even bore the cost for the facility.

Carvalho’s experience on the bus home wasn’t a pleasant one either. The bus arranged for us by our government was unclean. I am not sure if it was disinfected even,” he says.

The ‘exclusion’ treatment

These last few months have been the toughest says Shetgaonkar,and while he now has peace of mindas he is home with his family, he admits that he has now had to deal with stigma

“Otherwise, people would wait for us to come back and spend time with them, but this time, people are scared for their own liveswhich is reasonable. But our very own Goans didn’t want us back for they feared we would be carriers of the virus. Several seafarers had to be shifted from one hotel to the other due to protests of villagers,” he says, adding that during these tough times Goans have to support each other and stand united. “Goans must support fellow Goans,” he says.

Fernandes believes that due to lack of awareness and fear, locals of a particular village began objecting their presence in their vicinity. Hence, they were then moved to another quarantine facility in Morjim.

“I expected that people of Goa especially the seafarers who were already home would support all seafarers but it was completely opposite,” adds Carvalho.

What next?

While most seafarers are in doubt of when they will go back to work, there are some who have already put their skills to work by starting food outlets. There are also those like a Gulf returnee who is hoping to go back once the international flights re-start, but also says: “The government should now boost the economy and give jobs to Goans if they want to retain Goans and save Goa. This is the best opportunity.”

A seafarer who doesn’t want to be namedsays that while ‘shippies’ are often looked at as being rich and loaded with money, it isn’t true as there is neither job security nor does that experience generally count while looking out for a job with a reputed company. “I appeal to our government to assist us and our families through loan waivers, subsidies, and coming up with innovative ideas,” he says.

Bengaluru to Goa: Lockdown torment

Ankita Palekar on her blog ‘Gajali Gajali’ on May 27 shared her nightmarish story during the lockdown.

“When Prime Minister Modi announced a lockdown I thought I would never be able to see Goa or my loved ones again,” says the techie who works in Bengaluru.

It was only after the third lockdown when the government announced some relaxation in lockdown rules that Palekar managed to get her permit to travel confirmed- which wasn’t an easy task.

When they were finally supposed to leave for Goa on May 9, Palekar learned that the bus was heading to Tamil Nadu first to drop off persons from Tamil Nadu who were stranded in Goa. No news of when the bus would leave for Goa was coming in. Paresh Rivonkar responsible for getting home Goans stranded outside Goa then confirmed that her name was on the list.

When Palekar and 44 others, mostly Goans, started their journey back home, they were accommodated in two buses-with only one person per seat. Although, the bus made several stops none of the passengers were allowed to get off the bus to buy snacks or freshen up. “We could however request the security guard to purchase takeaway from the restaurant,” says Palekar.

When they reached the Goa border at midnight their temperature was checked and noted down. “I was famished as I had hardly eaten anything during the journey. At about 3 a.m. after the necessary procedures were done, we were told that we would have to wait till 7 a.m.,” says Ankita. After much deliberation with the policemen at 9 a.m. they were allowed to enter Goa.

In Margao, the bus halted at Margao Residency to provide refreshments. Afterhours of waiting, 20 passengers from North Goa finally left for Asilo Hospital, Mapusa. “After tests were done, we were sent to quarantine at Calangute Residency,” the post reads. Though she laments that the quarantine centre wasn’t great, Palekar concedes that she couldn’t also expect a free government quarantine centre of five-star standard.

After being sent for ‘home quarantine’,Palekar stayedat a guest house near her residence. In her post she states we should not judge the government or anyone else during this time of crisis; instead one must try and help someone in need. “On the bus I was helped by good people, they gave me food and water. Everyone was ready to help one another. Following our arrival I saw several posts on social media; people expressed their dissatisfaction about getting stranded Goans back home. My question here is, are we for humanity or against it?” asks Palekar.“The joy of seeing your people you will not understand sitting in one room and posting on the virtual walls, it can be only understood when someone is away.”

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