On January 30, Kerala health minister K.K. Shailaja held an extraordinary press conference at Thrissur, at 1:30 am. Around 25 reporters were present at the Medical College Hospital in Thrissur, when she briefed them about the first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in India. The patient, a medical student who had returned from Wuhan in China, the first hotspot of the virus, spent 23 days in isolation and now is back to her normal life.
For 40-odd days after that late night media briefing, Shailaja briefed reporters on a daily basis about the government’s preparedness, as well as the action taken to keep the pandemic at bay. After that, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan picked up the baton and has since been briefing the reporters, with ‘Shailaja Teacher’ – as the 63-year-old health minister is commonly known – seated alongside.
Irrespective of who faced the microphones and the cameras, the health minister and the CM were crystal clear and to the point in their statements. The duo has been completely transparent about the total confirmed cases in the state (3,603 infected patients, 1,888 of whom have been discharged) and the details of each case, barring the identity of the patients.
This attitude filtered down to all the levels of government and the motto seemed to be ‘keep it straight and simple’. A large number of people from Kerala work outside India, especially in West Asia, which made the Kerala case particularly sensitive. The government adopted the twin strategy of lockdown and mass testing. The high number of cases reported is also because of efforts by the state government to test as many people as possible, which has not happened in most other states of India.
From day one, the health department released data about patients and issued bulletins on their health condition. This continued until the first cluster of cases (three medical students who had returned from Wuhan) were cured of COVID-19 and discharged from the hospital.
“When the second cluster was reported and more cases were identified, the strategy of contact tracing became progressively harder. Surveillance at airports did not prove effective and a family coming in from Italy slipped through the Kochi International Airport’s screening on March 3. The family had the virus and spread it to five other people.”
“Two other patients in Thiruvananthapuram also gave the authorities a miss, creating chaos across the monitoring system of the health department. Even then, the government continued to give regular updates on the number of cases and the patients’ health condition.”
Opposition parties tried to target the government over its handling of the health emergency. The opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala also urged the government that instead of trying to contain the spread of coronavirus, the state should adopt the ‘mitigation’ strategy employed by western countries like the US and UK. The chief minister dismissed this suggestion, and now, as confirmed cases in the US and UK continue to rise exponentially, the opposition parties maintain radio silence.
The Pinarayi government’s handling of the pandemic has been lauded by many, even those who are not usually supporters of the Left parties. “To be frank, the CM is doing an unbelievable job in leading from the front,” says a senior Congress leader. “Unlike many of our leaders, the ministers in the Communist government have a knack of dealing with adverse situations and calamities. Shailaja Teacher has gained huge popularity among the public after the outbreak of the Nipah virus. Our [Congess] leadership erred when they booed the health minister inside the assembly when she was talking about the actions taken by the government to curb the spread of the virus. That single act has put the opposition on the back foot,” the leader said.
Even though there is criticism about the way the government machinery has been functioning, the Pinarayi government has gained huge support among the Malayali community across the globe. The stature of Pinarayi Vijayan as ‘The Captain’ – as he is often called by his party men – has grown many fold. Shailaja has also received praise and is arguably the most popular health minister Kerala has ever seen. Her humanitarian interventions have earned her the name‘Teacheramma’(The Teacher Mom), as she was a science teacher before entering electoral politics.
Let us see what steps the Kerala government took to curb the spread of the virus.
What were the provisions for testing? Was the state able to adopt the twin policy of lockdown and mass testing?
As of 25 June, Kerala has sent 203,574 samples for testing. Of these,156,401 have returned negative and 3,726 have been confirmed to have the viral infection. 1,888 patients have already recovered and have been discharged from hospitals.
The state already has 34 authorised centres to test for the viral infection, both in public and private sector.According to the health department, Kerala has always been ready to test more people, and the government is waiting for more testing facilities to get clearance.
How were the requirements of essential commodities met? How did the state government plan to distribute these resources over time?
CM Vijayan said that the state was well equipped to provide essential commodities for the first three months. In his daily briefings to the media, he made it clear that not a single family in the state would starve. “People might not be comfortable in asking for food, so we have set up phone numbers at Panchayat level. If people place their order for food, it will be delivered at their door by volunteers,” he said.
Community kitchenswere functioning in at least 861 panchayats, 84 municipalities and six municipal corporations. The state mobilised 2.3 lakh volunteers across the state to ensure delivery of essential goods.The distribution of welfare pensions for six months also started on March 28.
The state had already announced free rations of food grains for all: While families below the poverty line received 35 kg of rice, other families 15 kg. In addition, a grocery kit was also provided to every family.
The government also ensured that medicines and medical care was provided to all critical care patients. The social welfare department made arrangements for providing accommodation and food for transgender persons affected by the lockdown. “The food department steps to provide food grains to those who are living in rented houses without a ration card. After verifying their Aadhaar number, and ensuring their names are not included in any other ration cards, food grains will be distributed” Vijayan said.
What did the state government do to refurbish equipment such as testing kits, isolation wards, ventilators and protection gear for frontline health workers?
The state government already roped in private hospitals “to prepare for any untoward escalation of the situation”, apart from utilising all government hospitals. “We have 69,437 beds available in 869 private hospitals across the state. 5,607 ICU beds are also available. Apart from these hospital facilities, 15,334 isolation rooms can be arranged in 716 hostels,” the CM said.
Religious and other groups like the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council have offered their hospitals in case of an emergency situation. While there was a scarcity of testing kits, the government tried to procure them with the help of various agencies.
What economic relief was announced by the state to grant relief to people who are likely to incur losses?
Even before the Centre announced the COVID-19 relief package, the state government had announced a special package worth Rs 20,000 crore.
The state’s finance minister Thomas Isaac recently wrote that the financial package was delivered because it is “very important to make an effort to put money into the hands of the people”. “At this juncture when employment and income of common people are spiralling down, we decided to frontload our annual borrowing. For the next financial year, we are allowed an annual borrowing of about Rs 27,000 crore; of this, we’ll frontload some Rs 10-12,000 crore in the first quarter,” he said.
The government also extended relief to widows, while planning to implement an employment guarantee programme worth nearly Rs 3,000 crore. “All these have enabled the Rs 20,000 crore package — whose substantial portion is paying a whole lot of arrears, in old age pensions, scholarships, subsidies. Some advance payments will also be made,” he said in an article.
What are the main challenges the state is facing at the moment?
Kerala has past experience of battling with a deadly virus, when Nipah took 18 lives in 2017. Learning from that battle, the health department, led by minister Shailaja, was well equipped to handle the pandemic.
However, the NRIs who returned to the state from the Middle East after the COVID-19 outbreak were the main cause of worry for Kerala. Almost 80 percent of the cases reported in the state have international travel history, especially to the UAE. Some of them slipped past the authorities and passed the infection on to others.
Even government servants or politicians behaved irresponsibly, with the latest instance of an IAS officer fleeing quarantine just another example. In a major embarrassment to the district administration, Anupam Mishra, the sub-collector of Kollam who was put under isolation fled to Uttar Pradesh, his native region.
A local leader from Idukki, who tested positive for the virus, claimed to have been in touch with a very senior Congress state leader. Both of them had met at least two ministers of the Pinarayi cabinet as part of a discussion to settle an on-going strike in the district. It remains to be seen if any of these leaders were also infected.
Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.
This article is an updated version of the original published in The Wire India.