Even as the COVID-19 scare is subsuming India, Kerala’s fight against it has shown the way to the rest of the country. After the effective containment of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kozhikode district in 2018, health workers and the state government got accolades from across the globe. And in the wake of COVID-19, this has been repeated.
Kerala’s doctors, highly qualified nurses and experienced paramedical staff have been its strength and honoured by the most advanced countries as acclaimed professionals. Whether it is COVID-19, Nipah, SARS or MERS, the adept manner in which they take control of the situation is helping the state lead in the health sector. Along with this professional workforce, Kerala’s strong four-layered health infrastructure starting with community and primary health centres, taluk and district hospitals, medical colleges and superspecialty hospitals has proved that it can match or even outsmart those in western countries. Plus, it has 6,000 hospitals in the public and private sectors and a strong chain of ayurvedic and homeo hospitals.
So what did Kerala do to deal with COVID-19? It was in early February that three Malayalee medicos from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak, returned to Kerala and tested positive. As they volunteered to get quarantined and treated in isolation, they did not spread it to anyone. They soon recovered and were discharged. But five members of a family in Pathanamthitta district came from Italy, where the pandemic was wreaking havoc, and travelled around to churches, cinemas, hospitals, shopping malls and the homes of friends and relatives within a space of three weeks. Dr Anand, a young doctor at General Hospital, Pathanamthitta, detected one of their primary contacts with symptoms of COVID-19. By the time this case was detected, 15 other primary contacts of this family had contracted the virus.
What followed was a massive trail of those who had come in contact with the family. Health workers prepared a primary contact list, which was over 750 people. Strict vigil against people assembling for festivals, weddings and funerals helped check the spread. Except for Attukal Pongala, the largest congregation of women at Attukal temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the government did not concede any demand and strictly prohibited huge crowds. It also asked temple, church and mosque authorities to close these down for the time being. Even major temples like Guruvayoor had to limit rituals, and pilgrims were discouraged from going to Sabarimala.
Taking a cue from this, people voluntarily decided to skip festivities and temple rituals. Juma-Ath committees called off Friday prayers in a majority of mosques and many churches complied with the advisories of the government. Police registered cases and arrested priests whenever they breached the orders. Moreover, even before the prime minister’s call for a janata curfew, Kerala introduced restrictions for traders and the general public. But at some places, every effort to check the spread of the virus was thwarted. An NRI who reached Kasaragod district spread the infection to several people, forcing thousands of primary contacts to be quarantined. Over 30 people got tested positive due to this.
Meanwhile, the Kerala police came out with half-a-dozen innovative videos with songs and dances advising people to maintain personal hygiene. One of them used the classical art form of Kathakali to show the importance of hand washing. Another showed a group of policemen dancing to a film song sung by a tribal woman on the same theme. This went viral, attracting the international media too. Trolls too played an important role in the campaign. One was of a mother asking her children to assemble for family prayer. The son says: “Hello, police station? Here a woman is insisting on people crowding together.” Many of these trolls used characters in popular Malayalam films to get the message across. Some lampooned the government’s insistence that it would not close down Kerala State Beverages Corporation outlets, the milch cow of the state. However, after the centre’s announcement of a lockdown across India, the state government closed all these outlets. As on March 25, COVID-19 cases numbered 113 in the state. As many as 72,460 people are under observation, of whom 71,994 are in their houses and 466 in hospitals.
The 21-day lockdown has seen all private vehicles off the road. Autos and taxis can be hired only during emergencies. Over 2,000 cases have already been registered against those breaching these restrictions and over 1,600 arrested. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan interacted with MLAs through audio-conferencing and asked them to co-ordinate the activities. “Special attention should be given to the elderly, homeless, specially-abled in the state and local self-government institutions should take an effort to arrange food and shelter for the needy. Apart from medicines, those in isolation would also be given counselling if required,” he said.
The state government also ordered the opening of community kitchens at the panchayat level and getting food to the houses of those who had none. Before the total lockdown, Vijayan had invited the youth to come forward to volunteer as bystanders in hospitals and other places. He also ensured media support by directly interacting with the editors of print and electronic media. He also ensured that testing facilities in central universities such as the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Thiruvananthapuram were made available in case of an emergency.
Meanwhile, Kerala University of Health Sciences, under which 22 medical colleges function, has listed over one lakh students and faculty for volunteer work to take care of patients in case of an emergency.
“We have prepared the list of all these students and faculties. They will be deployed in their own districts,” said Mohanan Kunnummal, vice-chancellor, Kerala University of Health Sciences. KK Shylaja, the health minister, who did a commendable job, said the government had 4,000 rooms in 22 medical college hostels to house patients in case the pandemic went out of hand. Already, non-functional hospitals, rest houses, schools and colleges have been taken over and facilities arranged if there is a need for corona care centres.
All these efforts have also been buttressed by a massive relief package of Rs 20,000 crore. Though detractors may say this was done with an eye on local body elections due in six months, the fact remains that Kerala has been a guiding light in its fight against the virus. Rs 2,000 crore has been set apart for consumer loans and this will be made available through Kudumbashree, a massive women’s self-help group having a membership of nearly five million.
In addition, Rs 1,000 crore each for rural job employment guarantee schemes during April and May and social security pensions worth Rs 1,320 crore for two months to five million people of the low income group will bring cheer. Rs 100 crore has been earmarked for special assistance to BPL and Antyodaya families. APL families would get 10 kg of rice during the period, while BPL families would get a food kit with 15 kilos of rice and other items free of cost. All arrears worth Rs 14,000 crore due to individuals and institutions would also be settled immediately.
Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac said in a Facebook post: “Our aim is to bring money into the hands of the people. The best way to do this is to settle the dues in one go. We will spend the entire amount of MNREGS meant for the next fiscal year in the first two months. We will find the means for this by availing at least half of the Rs 25,000 crore sanctioned by the centre for next year.”
Perhaps other states could take a leaf out of Kerala’s book.
Lead picture: UNI