Ironically, Kerala was always among the most vulnerable states with a large section of its population living and working in various foreign countries affected by the pandemic.
Being a tourism hub, the presence of a large number of foreigners was another source of worry for the state as it began fight- ing the virus. Demography was another handi- cap. Out of Kerala’s population of 3.34 crore (census 2011), 48 lakhs are above 60 years of age and out of these 15 per cent are above 80, according to the state’s economic review.
But what Kerala did next has drawn international attention. Kerala luckily had a holistic plan ready, partly because of its earlier experience of dealing with the Nipah virus. A strong leadership, a disciplined citizenry and the trust and goodwill the government enjoyed were elements that helped the state flatten the Coronavirus curve more successfully than anywhere else in the world.
The state had effective communi- cation strategies ready and carried out social mobilisation to identify, isolate, test and treat the infected. “We shall overcome” are words imprinted on the official Twitter handle of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan.
On April 24, he sadly announced “It is with much sorrow that we report a COVID-19 related death in the State. A four-month-old infant has succumbed to the disease.“ The day saw 15 recoveries and 3 new cases. 21,725 under observation 21,941 samples tested; 20,830 have tested -ve It is such transparent and clear- cut messaging that has earned Kerala plaudits.
For Kerala, which had its first COVID-19 patient in January, the success in pegging the number of deaths to single digits, just four at the time of writing, till April-end is spectacular. And this is why the world is talking about the state. When the three medical students from Wuhan arrived, the state immediately placed them in isolation wards. Their fellow travellers on the Kolkata-Kochi flight were identified and also home quarantined. “Our battle began when the first travellers from Wuhan arrived in the state on January 23,” said Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja.
The Kerala model’s success, so far, owes it to the socio-economic development of the state – result of the years and years of investment in education and health. The state’s strong public health system, clear cut communication of risks by the government, and community participation are being credited for the success. Its strong but decentralised health system, public and private, was geared to fight the coronavirus pandemic after having successfully overcoming two serious floods and the Nipah virus out- break in 2018.
Strong community surveillance system helped. Unlike in other states, tens of thousands of people in home quarantine stayed isolated. Violations are unheard of. Long before the national lock- down, Kerala went into its own lock- down – schools closed, gatherings were banned, stricter and longer duration quarantines imposed, and people defying orders (collective prayers) were arrested.
Along with this, the Kerala government provided the people in quarantine all things they needed at the doorstep. Supplies were home-delivered, midday meals from schools were sent to the children in homes, migrant labourers were taken care of. Kerala was also the first to react when it came to procuring test kits from Pune-based Mylab.
Preliminary estimates suggest the state could incur a revenue loss of Rs 50,000 crore (FY2021) due to the COVID-19 crisis. The lockdown period itself has led to a revenue loss of Rs 4980 crore. But said Kerala Finance Minister Dr Thomas Isaac, “It does not matter what is the cost involved in flattening the curve.”
Kerala has also readied its plan to face the next wave of Coronavirus, if and when it comes. Kerala plans to start “Reserve Quarantine”, the practice of detach- ing the most vulnerable people, aged or people with co-morbidity condi- tions, from the rest and monitor their health indicators closely to protect them from infection.
The government is working on the idea that in case of a community spread, it can isolate its large volume of grey population and check their mortality rate effectively unlike what occurred in some of the western countries.