KK Shailaja tirelessly leads Kerala’s fight against coronavirus 

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The minister’s prompt and decisive action, along with strong social cohesion and positive socioeconomic indicators, played a big role in curbing the pandemic in the state, Benedict Lopez writes. 

Kerala, on the southwestern tip of the India, faces the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east, has a landmass of only 38,863 sq km or 1.2% of the country’s total land mass. The state’s population is only 34.8 million or 2.8% of the country’s population of 1.3 billion. 

Kerala’s topography has made the state one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. National Geographic Traveller named Kerala as one of the ten paradises in the world, highlighting its well-known ecotourism ingenuities, coupled with its serene backwaters.

Dubbing itself “God’s Own Country”, Kerala has stamped its mark on India’s political and social map. Over the past few months, the state’s health and social welfare minister, KK Shailaja, has made waves.

Few Indians, including politicians outside Kerala, had heard Shailaja’s name prior to the coronavirus pandemic. The tenacious minister has been at the forefront since the outbreak of the health crisis, exhibiting leadership qualities through her proactive measures.  

Following an online publication of the threatening disease in China in January 2020, she immediately requested her staff to get more information and began the state’s preparations to confront the crisis. Without delay she formed a rapid response team on 23 January and set up the control room the following day. The first case of Covid-19 in India was reported in Thrissur, Kerala on 30 January 2020. 

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All medical officers in Kerala’s 14 districts were directed to set up similar control rooms. The state had already adopted the World Health Organization (WHO) protocol of test, trace, isolate and support.

Kerala had experience in dealing with past health crises; it had contained the spread of the Nipah virus using a similar approach. Governments can only tackle disasters of such magnitude adeptly if they implement sound policies.

Kerala moved swiftly by contact tracing in early April. The state government’s prompt reaction in identifying these contacts reaped quick results. Kerala, which had the second higher number of infected cases in India in mid-March, dropped to 10th place by mid-April.

As Keralites returned from other countries and states, more cases cropped up from mid-May, with spikes of 12 consecutive days of over a hundred cases daily until yesterday, most of them originating from outside the state or the country. As of 30 June, there have been 4,442 confirmed cases with 2,304 (52%) recoveries and just 24 deaths. Still, that’s just 128 cases per million population compared that to 424 cases per million nationwide.  

Kerala’s effort in containing Covid-19 has won praise, both nationally and internationally (see video above). When the outbreak started, each district was asked to dedicate two hospitals to Covid-19, while each medical college set aside 500 beds. Separate entrances and exits were designated.

Diagnostic tests were in short supply, especially after the disease reached affluent western countries. Rising to this challenge, priority for these tests was reserved for those with symptoms, their close contacts, asymptomatic cases (random sampling) and the most exposed groups, ie health workers, police and volunteers.

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The unwavering commitment in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic has earned Shailaja, 63, nicknames such  as Coronavirus Slayer and Rockstar Health Minister. The former secondary school science teacher has won accolades, both nationally and globally, for her untiring efforts in containing the pandemic in the state.

Migrant workers in Kerala were not neglected during the pandemic. The state provided accommodation and three meals a day for six weeks to 150,000 migrant workers from bordering states when the lockdown was enforced.

Kerala produces a test result within 48 hours, a far cry from the seven days in some places in the US. Shailaja believes that testing, quarantining and hospital surveillance are vital in reducing the spread of coronavirus. And it has proven effective in Kerala.

Shailaja hopes to contribute in meaningful ways to Kerala until her term of office expires in 2021, when the next state elections are due. In the meantime, she does not expect the threat of Covid-19 to decline soon. Instead, she believes proper planning and sound execution are essential in confronting any health crisis.

Kerala’s high literacy rate worked to its advantage during the pandemic. When places of worship had to be closed due to the lockdown, resistance was conspicuously nonexistent, unlike other states where there were protests. Keralites spontaneously comprehended the rationale for them to stay at home after the government provided an explanation.

The state’s social cohesion, empowered local governments and favourable socioeconomic indicators have all worked to its advantage in the fight against the pandemic. Its literacy rate of 94% is much higher than the national average of 74%, while life expectancy is 75 years compared to the national average of 69.7 years. Kerala’s infant mortality rate of seven deaths per thousand is a shade better than the UN sustainable development goal target of eight deaths per 1,000 births for 2020.

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Kerala continues to place importance on education and healthcare. This strategic focus, at the cornerstone of the state’s socioeconomic planning and a bedrock for its sustainable development, has played a huge role in stemming the tide of the pandemic.  

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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