It was early February in Bangalore and my friends and I were still overwhelmed by all the violence and rage surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act, when the news of the first COVID 19 cases in Kerala slowly placed itself in one corner of our minds.
One of my classmates was seriously worried. She sent screenshots about the latest news regarding Coronavirus in our class group almost every day.
“I’m just scared you know,” she said, “Kerala is just so close to Bangalore and people keep travelling back and forth.”
My Malayali pride glowered in silence. I thought it useless to tell this child about our warrior queen Shailaja teacher or about how well we handled the Nipah outbreak (I promise, once we’re done with the lockdown I will make sure she watches Virus).
However I must admit that both of us were only thinking locally at that point, and neither of us could anticipate the global impact of the apocalyptic movie we are in. What started out as jokes on social media about people mixing cow urine in their beers or fighting over toilet paper, quickly moved to alarming death rates in Italy and violent racism against the Chinese (and people from the North East, in India). The seriousness of the situation finally ‘hit home’ when the Prime Minister announced the nation-wide lockdown on the 25th of March 2020.
While we ran around in circles worrying about rescheduled semester exams, friends stuck in PGs and buying groceries, Kerala was beaming resilience.
Thanks to the experience of having dealt with the Nipah outbreak, Kerala was prepared to face Corona much before the first cases (students from Wuhan) were reported. The Health Minister KK Shailaja said that the state had begun discussions on the subject mid- January.
After the third case was reported, a State Response Team put together with KK Shailaja as the chairperson. The team had three students quarantined and treated. The Health Minister understood the importance of keeping the public informed during a crisis. She held press conferences on a daily basis and was later joined by the Chief Minister. They maintained this system until public meetings proved to be too risky, with the increase in the number of COVID cases. Despite this obstacle, they ensured that the people were updated regularly, by issuing guidelines to the press about reporting on the pandemic.
The efforts did not stop there though; the government launched an app called GoK Direct, in an attempt to tackle the problem of fake news. They also set up a YouTube channel called Kerala Health Online Training to create awareness on precautionary measures.
On 3rd February, Kerala declared a State Emergency; cinema halls, tourist spots, schools and colleges were all shut down. The government did not forget the importance of nourishment during this time and ensured that mid-day meals were home delivered to Anganwadi students, and giving free rations to people in the APL group too.
At home in Bangalore, pharmacies and grocery stores in the tiniest corners had notices put up at the door telling you there was no point in trying; face masks and hand sanitizers are out of stock. Meanwhile, CM Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted that Kerala had entrusted prison inmates with the task of making cheap, reusable masks to combat the shortage and sudden hike in prices.
#COVID19 | Solving The Mask Problem 😷— Pinarayi Vijayan (@vijayanpinarayi) March 14, 2020
In light of the shortage, directions were given to engage the prisons in the State in manufacturing masks. It has commenced on a war footing basis. Today, the Prison officials of Thiruvananthapuram Jail have handed over the first batch. pic.twitter.com/QKgHWqYNOg
Kerala almost reached the finish line when the three students showed full recovery and did not lead to an increase in cases, but soon after, a family returning from Italy decided to avoid the screening process. The family, who later tested positive for Corona, came in contact with large groups of people and their irresponsibility resulted in a sudden and massive hike in the number of cases. And then there is ‘Patient K’, a suspected smuggler, who was in contact with 1,400 people in Kasaragod and Kannur districts (including two MLAs) before he was admitted to hospital on the 19th of March.
However, Kerala did not remain shaken for long. The authorities immediately took up extensive contact tracing measures and with the help of the surveillance team, the contacts were traced within a matter of days. Route maps and flowcharts were used to trace the travel history of all the family and all the people they infected.
While the central government has implemented a 14-day quarantine for positive COVID19 cases, Kerala follows a 28-day quarantine. Apart from the counselors assigned to look out for the mental health of the patients, the health minister herself has been visiting them and communicating with them via phone calls to keep up morale. GPS trackers have been used to ensure that patients don’t try to escape quarantine.
The state has also looked out for the mental health of people under home quarantine by setting up call centers where people can contact counselors. Our CM also held a video conference with representatives of non-residential Malayalis from across the globe on the 6th of April to understand the issues that plague them and assured them to do everything in his power to ease their difficulties through appropriate rehabilitation schemes.
Looking out for the people of Kerala does not end with looking out for the Malayalis. Kerala did not forget about its migrant workers; officials who can speak the languages of workers were sent to migrant labor camps to create awareness and provide safety instructions.
Another move by the government that received a lot of appreciation on social media was when they collaborated with internet service providers to increase connectivity through the state. This measure helped people cope with the lockdown and proved essential to all those working from home.
Along with showing appreciation, people have also extended their help to the government. The state reached out to its people asking for volunteers to help face COVID19, and the Kerala State Youth Commission found over 1400 volunteers in just one day.
Of course, we are all familiar with the Break the Chain initiative; the video of police officers dancing had become viral throughout the country. Celebrities urging citizens to wash their hands and stay safe can be seen on every ad break on television. Although, the provision of water taps and hand-wash soap in public places was definitely the highlight of this campaign.
Amongst all of this information, it was a bit disheartening to learn that people had gathered in large numbers in Tablighi Jamaat and to find that many of them had been infected with COVID-19. At the same time, it was horrible to see how this incident had brought out communal attitudes and anger in people. Here again, Kerala focused on empathy. The chief minister addressed the people during the rise in panic. He said, “A virus has no religion and it spreads not on the basis of any religion or community. Some forces are trying to communalize the situation. They have started a virulent campaign on social media. Such attempts will not succeed in a state like Kerala”.
As per the latest news, Kerala has installed walk-in kiosks (called wisks) to test for COVID19. The kiosks minimise contact between patients and health staff, and they eliminate the need for PPE kits.
To collect samples for testing #COVID-19, Kerala sets up South Korean-style kiosks.The kiosks enable easy and cheap sample collection. 2 such kiosks are installed at the Govt Medical College,Ernakulam.— Neethu Joseph (@neethujoseph_15) April 6, 2020
Video credit: I&PRD Ernakulam pic.twitter.com/sXFO8z9NeF
Kerala has shown the best recovery rate in the country. All of this was achieved only because of the commendable efforts by the government, and the perseverance of the healthcare workers, the police and journalists, the generosity of the government employees who gave up a month’s salary to contribute to the relief fund for the state. And while we’ve not won this battle yet, we’re definitely on the path to eradicating Corona in Kerala.