Kerala Health Minister Shailaja – “Science Over Stupidity & Superstition Is How We Tackled the Pandemic”

Kerala Health Minister Shailaja
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Kerala Health Minister Shailaja
Kerala Health Minister Shailaja

UK magazine ‘Prospect’ identified Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja as the world’s top thinker for the Covid-19 era but the school teacher turned Communist politician from Kannur in Kerala does not think she is doing anything unusual. The recognition of course is inspiring but she gives credit for the success in handling the pandemic to the hundreds of frontline health workers in the state who have made Kerala a model to emulate in the public health sector.

“I am happy that the state continues to be an inspiration in the management of coronavirus pandemic at the international level. We have a strong public healthcare system built over the years and enriched by different socio-political organisations and successive governments. Our doctors and health workers are extremely dedicated and we are ensuring strong public scrutiny of our actions. I am dedicating this achievement to all those who contribute to the state’s public health achievements. We will continue the fight against the pandemic in all possible ways ensuring public involvement and high transparency at each level,” the Minister said in an interview to The Citizen.

Interestingly, she has been selected from a list of 50 personalities which include Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand; philosopher Cornel West; historian of slavery Olivette Otele among others. According to the magazine, ‘she was the right woman in the right place’.

When Covid-19 was still a China story in January, Shailaja not only accurately foresaw its inevitable arrival, but also grasped the implications,” Prospect, recognising this, has written, “So deft was her handling of a 2018 outbreak of the deadly Nipah disease that was commemorated in a film, Virus.

In 2020, she was the right woman in the right place. When Covid-19 was still “a China story” in January, she not only accurately foresaw its inevitable arrival, but also fully grasped the implications. She rapidly got the WHO’s full “test, trace and isolate” drill implemented in the state, and bought crucial time by getting a grip of the airports, and containing the first cases to arrive on Chinese flights.

Of course the virus returned, but there was rigorous surveillance and quarantine—sometimes in makeshift structures. The public messages have been consistent, and Shailaja follows them to the letter, with social distancing in all official meetings (which can go on until 10pm) and restricting herself to a Zoom-only relationship with her grandchildren.”

Other international media organisations like BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian and others in the past have also expressed appreciation for Shailaja’s efforts in controlling the spread of the pandemic in her state.

For this Health Minister, the fight against the pandemic started very early in February when India’s first three coronavirus positive cases were reported in Kerala. The first cases were cured by adopting a rigid protocol which included a 28-day quarantine.

“Fighting an epidemic like Corona requires enormous amounts of scientific temper and humanism. We are also maintaining a spirit for inquiry and reform. Superstition, credulity, emotionalism and irrationalism will derail the whole process by dispiriting and discouraging the experts and health activists who attempt hard to resolve the threat scientifically,” she said.

“In Kerala, we have initiated stringent police action against those who attempted to spread stupidity in the face of the pandemic. That was one of the main reasons why Kerala made some early advantages in checking the spreading of the virus,’’ Shailaja added.

She had taken VRS as a school teacher about 15 years ago to dedicate herself to CPI-M work.

“I am a first time minister with very little exposure to the field of medical science. My relationship with hospitals hitherto remained just as a patient and a political activist who organised protests demanding better treatment facilities for the poor. But being a school teacher who taught Chemistry and Physics for long and a trusted cadre of India’s left movement which always upheld scientific temper and reasoning, I strictly followed scientists and experts other than doctors under my department,’’ said Shailaja

She had also attracted global attention earlier for containing two consecutive instances of Nipah Virus spread in Kerala as well, ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Ministers and politicians may not be subject experts even on the portfolios being allocated to them. But you can make a difference by keeping your eyes and ears open. You can read a lot about Corona on the internet. The latest information can be accessed. I am using late night hours to read such articles. In dedicating ourselves to the larger human cause, the only requirement for you is the ability to grasp,’’ 63 year old Shailaja said.

Asked about how she managed so well the Minister, unassuming and modest said, “ensure that the whole administrative set up is keeping reason and science above superstition. Facilitate better coordination among scientists, experts, doctors with proven capabilities and public health specialists. Don’t hide or suppress anything from the people. There must be extreme transparency and accountability in the interventions and any official attempt to manipulate the data would backfire.”

And how had she detected it so early ? “It was by chance I noticed some news articles from Wuhan in China which spoke of the emergence of coronavirus. It was the initial phase and there was not much scare even in China. But I just thought of the possibility of Keralite youngsters who study for medicine and engineering in Wuhan getting affected with the disease and then returning to Kerala and causing its spread here. Immediately I rang up the Kerala Health secretary and shared my concern. The reason fpr this might have also been our two recent consecutive fights against the Nipah virus outbreak. That was the beginning,’’ the Minister recalled.

With the health secretary finding the minister’s concerns valid, Kerala initiated a massive drive targeting the corona virus. It has developed a strong chain of command, starting from the top health department officials in Thiruvananthapuram to field workers.

“The war against corona in Kerala is a continuing process. We were able to make considerable gains but are not in a position to say we are completely safe. Our people are travelling across the globe and many who worked outside have returned to the state during the lockdown. The challenges are enormous as cases are now increasing. But we are extremely vigilant and confident about the results to be achieved,” she said.

When asked about the increasing cases in the state and the challenges posed by the situation, Shailaja said the government has a clear grasp of the the emerging threat and is continuously attempting to balance the questions of lives and livelihoods.

“We never said we achieved ultimate victory over the virus threat. From the beginning of May, the state has witnessed a surge in COVID-19 cases. At another level, we have to protect lives in a way that will not affect livelihood concerns. Many Keralites have returned from abroad and other states in the last two months and we have taken all possible steps to detect virus carriers among them and to ensure them further treatment. Surveillance steps are already on to avert maximum instances of community transmission,’’ she said.

“Individual-level vigilance and cooperation with the government is a necessity. At present, over 22,000 tests are happening at 84 laboratories across the state. Nine more labs would be started in the government sector soon. The state currently has 8,704 beds to treat COVID-19 patients. Over 30,500 beds will be ready within a few days. We have now involved private hospitals in the fight and the tariff fixed for them is the lowest in the country. Critics often forget the fact that the state still has the lowest mortality rate in the country: 0.32,’’ she explained.

“The two Nipah outbreaks have given a sense of direction. Our officials had traced those who returned to Kerala from infected areas and isolated them even if they had minor symptoms. Some others were home quarantined. Trained health workers were deployed to assist them. It all was a team effort. Luckily, Kerala has a team of duty-bound officials and experts who managed the situation with extreme dedication and courage,’’ she said.

Based on the advice of virology experts, the state has prepared very specific instructions to deal with each suspected case. Matrices were prepared in a way giving clear guidelines to deal with every single situation which would arise.

“With the police starting to act tough against those who spread false information like cow dung can cure corona, vested interests have got a clear grasp that we would not tolerate their gimmicks. That helped a lot,’’ the minister said. A total of 215 trained experts are deployed in the state for ensuring tele-counselling services to those who feel they are infected with the virus.

“In the initial days after taking charge as minister, lack of expertise was an issue for me. But I gained a clear grasp with the help of the officials. Now I am maintaining direct links with different ranks of officials in the department without considering protocol. Any staff member can call me at any time to share any grievance” she pointed out.

There is a 20 member team in her office that constantly tracks the global corona situation. “Empathy and transparency are my investments in this field,’’ she said.

@We have just started an institute of virology studies in Thiruvananthapuram and there is renewed focus on evolving a long term action plan that can effectively address any virus scare of the future. Other than viruses, I am always concerned about keeping aloft Kerala’s hard earned gains in the field of public health. Our government hospitals are a model for the whole country as they match with private ones in terms of facilities, expertise and infrastructure. Health continues to be inexpensive in Kerala,’’ Shailaja said.

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