Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister KK Shailaja have earned international accolades for their government’s coordinated fight to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in the state, which reported the first case of the fomite-borne disease in India. For a state that tops in remittances from abroad, its links with the Gulf region and the rest of the world are legendary, making its people more vulnerable to contracting the disease. Vijayan says that although the number of coronavirus cases in the state has risen, so have recoveries. “We quarantine or test potential cases to ensure that they get early treatment. The idea is also to identify and isolate them from healthy people,” the 75-year-old Chief Minister avers. Vijayan spoke to Open about his government’s key priorities. Excerpts:
There is a perception that the Kerala model of health care, a metaphor for able containment of infectious diseases, was successful with Covid-19 cases from China, Italy and other destinations, but began to flounder when a stream of corona positive cases started arriving from the Gulf region. Is your public health apparatus under stress now?
Firstly, the Gulf region is sort of an extension of Kerala. Our small state is what it is thanks to the contribution of people from all over the world, especially the Gulf. We have enormous gains thanks to people of Kerala origin living there and therefore this is a cost that we have to pay when they return home sick. They are welcome to return. Of course, now there are no flights or trains or interstate buses. But that doesn’t mean that they can roam around freely. They have to obey rules here. If the health department asks them to go for home quarantine or get admitted to a hospital, they have to do that. They can’t dodge such responsibilities. We have to maintain social distancing and ensure isolation as a policy to fight Covid-19.
No, it is not true that we are floundering. See, our primary health infrastructure is also a social infrastructure that involves a large number of people who are working collectively to check the spread of this viral disease. From ASHA workers to doctors to nurses to political workers to local governments and the state government, all are involved in this mission to fight the disease. We have proved that we could do it when the Nipah outbreak happened in which the mortality rates were much higher. Also, don’t forget that we have fully functional and equipped primary health centres in all villages in Kerala. Our nurses are known for their world-class skills. Our doctors are also extremely experienced in handling unexpected stress and situations. An elderly couple from Ranni, aged 93 and 82, were successfully treated for Covid-19. All that is proof of our efficiency.
Yes, we have an unprecedented situation here in which even countries with the best and most technologically advanced health facilities in the private sector have failed. We are trying our best and our primary health system is robust and let me remind you it did not happen to be so by accident. Our stress on public health had started much earlier than most others. The 1957-1959 EMS government laid great emphasis on public health and even when the focus shifted worldwide to the private sector, our commitment to public health remained strong. And that is our strength. This is a time of great hardship, but we are determined to offer the best services to the public. You know that some days ago, we declared a special package to tide over the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak.
In what ways are various tiers of the government coordinating with people?
We have asked MLAs and all local bodies to keep an eye on homes in their areas so as to avert domestic abuse and to help people addicted to alcohol to be shifted to deaddiction centers. We have appealed to the people as a whole to create healthy atmosphere in their homes and for men to help the womenfolk in daily chores. We are also taking steps to ensure the wellbeing of all health workers. All this is a matter of commitment.
Are community kitchens part of that commitment?
Very much. See, lockdowns affect a lot of people. Some people are fine because they have the resources to withstand such drastic measures that are taken to fight a highly infectious disease. But then we also have to take care of those who are highly vulnerable to any such lockdown. We announced a lockdown a day earlier than the national lockdown. Naturally, we had to be prepared. A lot of dailywage labourers and workers from other states, meaning low-income groups and disadvantaged people, are going to be at high risk of starvation and concomitant difficulties. Old people who do not have others to take care of them are also part of that group. Most often people who are hungry and suffering are reluctant to ask neighbours for help because that is a humiliating experience. We understand those problems. Which is why we have set up community kitchens, thanks to these they all can call up on a number and ask for food which will be delivered at their doorstep or wherever they are. There was talk that community kitchens mean all people will come and eat in one big hall. No. Our idea is to offer succour to the poor while maintaining social distancing. We think it is foolish on any government’s part to allow its people to be hungry. In Kerala, no person will sleep hungry because of the lockdown. We will ensure the needy will get food. Especially, we treat people who have come to our state from other states as guests. They are not anyasamsthana thozhilalikal [non-Kerala labourers] but atithi thozhilalikal [guest workers]. We have already made announcements about the huge number of relief camps. These camps are equipped with masks, soaps and sanitizers. Brochures and short videos in Hindi, Odia and Bengali languages are also being circulated. Again, we have asked people to show more responsibility because their cooperation is crucial in this drive against coronavirus.
Kerala is being compared with South Korea, which successfully flattened the curve after an initial explosion in Covid-19 cases thanks to its affordable testing kits.
Our government and our visionary leaders since the beginning [1957, when the first Kerala government came to power after the state was created in 1956] have been committed to improving availability of health facilities to everyone irrespective of social position. We are continuing that rich legacy that we have inherited. South Korea is a different case; Kerala is an altogether different experience. Ours is an all-encompassing social initiative because we in the government believe that health is a public good. Of course, we are getting into a rapid testing phase like South Korea did. We now have the wherewithal to do that.
Are you anxious this crisis will spiral out of control?
Never. We are concerned about the welfare of all people who happen to be within the borders of this state, whether Indian or foreign. We are doing everything possible to arrest this disease. Where does the question of anxiety arise? We are asking people not to panic because the government is not just with them, but one step ahead of them to make an all-out effort to protect them. But we also want all the people here to follow strict rules. We also make it a point to be totally transparent and we communicate regularly with the media and address the public directly through all forums. In all panchayats of Kerala, we have created a volunteer force comprising young people. We are also offering a lot of help to people who are stranded due to the lockdown. I have already shared most specifics in my daily interaction with the media.
Now, about people from abroad. There is tremendous scope for our doctors to share their experiences with those abroad. When we set up the Loka Kerala Sabha [a forum to bring non-resident Keralites under one platform], there was a lot of criticism here. Now everyone understands that in times of need, there is larger cooperation that is possible. Doctors and nurses from afar are able to give and take knowledge. All that is strengthening our efforts to contain Covid-19.
The number of cases in Kerala is still rising…
Let me assure you that we have a public-health machinery which is more of a social infrastructure to trace people who could be infected. We are determined to leave nothing to chance. We will put all those who need to be put under watch in quarantine and all those who need treatment will get treatment. Why don’t you see that we are the ones who have tested the largest number of people? We do it because the density of population in the state is very high. Look at Covid-19 mortality rate in the state. That is because we are prompt in identifying and isolating potential cases of Covid-19. We don’t want people to die of Covid-19 and we don’t want people to die of hunger. I want to tell our diaspora and relatives of workers now in Kerala that we will take care of them. You shouldn’t worry about them. We are well-equipped to deal with Covid-19. We have many testing centres now… . The government is also encouraging people to grow food crops at a local level so that there is no food shortage in the state.
Before temporarily banning liquor shops, your government had hesitated a bit even while under attack from the Opposition, saying the measure would result in social repercussions and rise in illicit trading. Since these were closed, some people have committed suicide.
Crowding outside these retail outlets will spread infection. People addicted need to voluntarily opt to be admitted to deaddiction centres. We have made all arrangements for them. A helpdesk for online counselling is being created to address this problem. Counselling through the web will be expanded much further. Now, criticism against the government over this is raised only by hypocrites.
There are complaints of police misusing power and abusing people. Reportedly, in some cases, a few policemen used filthy language against even those who were inside their houses.
As of now, the police are doing their job, but in odd cases of such abusive behaviour we will take prompt action. Nobody should use filthy language. After all, all these measures are for the people and if they have a sufficient and solid reason to step out of homes, nobody will harass them. That is my assurance to the people of Kerala. But they must not come up with lame excuses to roam around. Without doubt, ours is a ‘people first’ policy. And we have seen great unity in the state in fighting Covid-19. This has become a people’s movement. Besides, we will not allow anyone to communalise this pandemic. Coronavirus has no religion.
There are protests by guest workers in some parts of the state.
We have taken care of those. There was a conspiracy behind it. We will punish the guilty.
What are you going to do about the sealing of the border in the north by Karnataka?
I spoke with the Prime Minister and then the Honourable Home Minister Amit Shah was kind enough to listen to our position. But so far nothing concrete has happened after that although there is a court verdict in our favour. We must not forget that Mangalore is a medical hub because of its geography: proximity to Kerala. Historically, it flourished because of contribution of people from the entire northern region of Kerala. It is unfair to seal borders, especially to stop those who are seeking medical care.
Are you satisfied with the Centre’s Covid-19 package?
We welcome the move. We, however, expect the Honourable Prime Minister to do more because the states are resource-scarce and have to depend on the Centre.