In the southwestern Indian state of Goa, one in every two people tested is positive for Covid-19.
That makes it the state with the highest positivity rate nationwide, as the virus rips through the country. And that’s just among the people getting tested – meaning the rate of infection among the untested population may be higher.
On Friday, the state hit a new record high positivity rate of 51.4%, said Goa Health Minister Vishwajit P. Rane – suggesting a total lockdown may be needed to contain the spread of the virus. About 690,360 tests had been done in the state as of Friday, according to the state’s Press Information Bureau.
“That is the need of the hour,” he said, adding the state’s chief minister was “seriously considering” a lockdown. “We have had issues of oxygen supply and other issues. We need to bring the positivity rate down. That’s the only way forward.”
India’s second wave hit its major cities and populous states hard. Cases in the capital, New Delhi, began climbing in late March, accelerating rapidly in April – and as the virus spread from state to state, other parts of the country began to see their own surge in cases, sometimes weeks after the central hotspots.
A tourist destination known for its beaches, Goa is home to about 1.5 million people – a figure which is likely to have increased since the last census in 2011. The state saw its uptick begin in early April, as Delhi was already struggling – but infections rose exponentially over the past two weeks. Goa recorded more than 3,800 cases on Thursday, its highest daily figure so far.
The spike has raised alarm among authorities as they prepared for the type of calamity unfolding in other states. Schools, bars, gyms, cinemas, and other public spaces are closed, and political and social gatherings are banned. The government has encouraged people to work from home, and imposed restrictions on capacity and opening hours on restaurants and shops.
India's Covid-19 crisis, in pictures
The state’s health system “is already overloaded,” Rane said.
“We’re doing everything possible,” he added. “We’ve enhanced our testing facilities so that we don’t have to wait for someone to show symptoms to test.”
The state is also in the process of procuring equipment to conduct genome sequencing, to determine which strain of the virus was traveling in the community, and whether variants might be spreading.
“We also find that the infection rate of this strain is very high and this is creating a lot of problems,” he said.
Second wave complacency
The surge in Goa, and the second wave generally, is linked to loose Covid rules during the winter, experts say.
India’s first wave peaked in September, and cases began falling toward the end of the year. By the start of this year, many states had relaxed their measures, inter-state travel had resumed, and people were largely going about their daily lives.
The country’s complacency – and a sense the worst of the pandemic was over – meant the second wave hit much harder because authorities and public health systems were completely unprepared. But the problem may have been even more pronounced in popular travel spots like Goa.
“There were no restrictions of any kind (from December to February), and that is something we should have looked into at that point of time,” said Rane. “Goa was one of the most favored destinations and people used to come. And at that point of time, we found that people were not following the (guidelines) and protocols.”
The looser rules and winter downswing in cases coincided with Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights and one of the country’s biggest annual celebrations – as people traveled to Goa from across India.
“Everybody was taking things for granted,” Rane said. “No one was following social distancing. Masks are something that you cannot do away with.” The rise in tourism, especially during the festival period, gave rise to potential “super spreader events,” he said.
Now the state is paying the price, he said, as authorities rush to respond to the rise in cases.
State and federal authorities have constructed new Covid treatment centers and ICU facilities, including one with a 20,000-liter oxygen tank. They are looking to bring in interns from the state’s medical college to help in health care facilities. The examination hall at the college, located in the town of Bambolim, has been converted into a Covid ward holding 150 beds and medical oxygen.
Aid from other states and countries has begun trickling in. On Friday, the Goa Customs agency released images of the “first consignment of oxygen concentrators” arriving in the state, as well as boxes of Covid vaccines and testing kits.
Dozens of countries began sending medical supplies to India in late April – but the government offered little transparency as to the supplies’ whereabouts or distribution plan until this week, as local media and foreign donors began questioning where the aid was going.
Authorities responded to the criticism this week, denying any delay in distribution. The government “continues to effectively allocate Covid-19 supplies received from the global community to states and (union territories),” said the Ministry of Health in a statement on Thursday.
It’s not clear which day distribution began. However, the ministry acknowledged it had taken seven days – from April 26 to May 2 – to draw up guidelines on how to allocate and deliver the aid.