Kerala has won appreciation for effective handling of the situation. What was the biggest advantage the state had in dealing with the situation?
Historically, Kerala has been performing well on the social sector. Public health, education, and awareness have always been our core areas on which we built up our social infrastructure. We have completely put to use this social infrastructures to combat the menace. We also made it a point (to ensure) that government agencies, various organisations and even voluntary associations are synchronised to take up the challenge.
Our health edifice starts from the village-level primary health centres, which are connected to an extensive network of hospitals.
We activated our health and allied departments when we came to know about the COVID-19 outbreak in China (early January this year). Our experience in dealing with the deadly Nipah (virus) helped us draw up a protocol wherein even the minutest details of information was garnered, analysed and dealt with.
When students from Wuhan affected by COVID-19 boarded their flight from China we made arrangements to receive them and treat them even while ensuring their disconnect from the society. All students (arriving from) from Wuhan were directly sent to isolation from the airport. The government sent (Kerala) Health Minister K K Shylaja to oversee the treatment as well as the protective protocols. As the Chief Minister, I make it a point that review meetings are conducted every day – sometimes more than thrice a day – involving heads of all departments concerned. It is very important to ensure inter-department and intra-department coordination, as it is a pandemic. Kerala has a well-knit system of local self governments and their participation was ushered in from the first phase itself.
What’s the uniqueness of the COVID-specific Kerala model?
See, we have had the experience of facing the Nipah virus crisis. We had (then) made it a point to imbibe good experiences from across the globe. The protocol we have drawn up is on the basis of this experience, but certainly we made it Kerala-specific considering the peculiarity of our state. We were mindful of our strength as well as weaknesses. Our main strength is the advancement in social sector. We may lack resources but we certainly have a high degree of awareness, education, participation and commitment of people.
Kerala has always risen above parochial and partisan barriers when such exigencies arise.
Right from the beginning we had taken the Opposition into confidence and considered their suggestions. We undertook an intense and massive communication with the local self-governments and I did it along with the Leader of Opposition, Mr Ramesh Chennithala. We addressed representatives of different layers of local self-governments (LSG), starting with ward members in the panchayat. Before video-conferencing with representatives of LSGs, we had convened an all-party meeting to have views of all parties, irrespective of their political orientation. I should say unity and commitment are pivotal to the Kerala model.
As Chief Minister, I had a meeting with all religious leaders in the state through video-conferencing to seek their support for effective social distancing. All the leaders assured their full support. Subsequently, they all put off their normal religious gatherings and festivals. Only rituals are being held nowadays; no congregation of people.
As the numbers went up, did the state change its strategies? Were there course corrections?
The situation is changing every day. We can’t be adamant on any static plans. Our review meetings are intended to upgrade and improve our action plan. Even a small experience reported from elsewhere is looked into to see that our plan is meticulous. Numerous Malayalee health workers from worst-affected parts of the globe, including Italy, rendered their experience and we hugely benefitted from such inputs.
We have opened a 24-hour war room under a senior IAS officer to monitor and deal with any exigencies at any time. I also make it a point that affected people are heard, irrespective of the timing of their calls. We have also formed a youth army which has 2.36 lakh youngsters between 22 and 40 years to participate in the process actively.
Were there any moments when you felt disappointed? Or did things go as planned?
I don’t have any major complaints about anybody, but we feel let down when someone doesn’t listen to our instructions. There were a couple of cases wherein people who were to observe isolation went around visiting people and places. However, the general public has understood the seriousness of the matter and are adhering to the instructions.
What worries you most at present?
As in the case of all countries and places, the threat of a community spread is looming. However, we are hopeful of averting such a catastrophe. Kerala has a history of being resilient…in a short span we had several crises – floods, Nipah, Ockhi, etc. I am hopeful of overcoming the present situation, too, with people’s support.
Which aspects do you want to focus more on?
Our main focus is to contain the spread of the virus. That is why we are exhorting people to stay at home
Keralá’s step-by-step approach is much-appreciated. First, containing the spread of the pandemic and then supplementing prohibitory measures with support to people in terms of food and cash.
We have been very particular that the pandemic needs to be contained. At the same time, people should not face any serious difficulties. Even at the first meeting, I told officers that we are doing everything for the people; nobody should be robbed off their basic amenities. Kerala is a hunger-free state. COVID-19 or not, we want to maintain the state like that. No one will go to bed without food. We are opening community kitchen and we are hopeful of having more than a thousand (of these kitchens), which would take care of providing food for the needy, the aged and those who are not in a position to arrange for food. Arrangements are made to ensure the food reaches the doorstep.
Even though Kerala was going through a major financial crisis you announced a package of Rs 20,000 crore.
Even before the Centre announced a (relief) package, we had announced a series of economic measures. We are mindful of the acute shortage of resources. But that should not prevent the government from bringing relief to the people. This was the principle on which we announced the Rs 20,000-crore package. This includes health, loan assistance, free foodgrain, advance payment of welfare pension, more allocation for MNREGS, subsidised meals, tax relief, and more.
Loans worth Rs 2,000 crore are being made available to families with the help of Kudumbasree. We will not charge any interest on these loans. We had adopted a similar measure after the floods. This had helped thousands of families to return back to normal life.
The package announced by the Centre is a welcome measure, and we have decided to make use of every scheme to ensure maximum relief to the people. However, the Centre has to go further…the state governments directly deal with any crisis – we (states) interact with the people and understand the real nature of their difficulties.
Kerala (has) submitted a proposal before the Central government, including a request to enhance our borrowing limit at these trying times. During the Prime Minister’s video-conference with chief ministers, I had pointed out some of the measures to support the states. I expect the Centre to understand the whole gamut of issues and respond positively.
A large number of expat population is a boon for Kerala when it comes to remittances. But when a pandemic such as this spreads, do you think expats create a kind of dilemma?
Kerala is one state which has got the maximum interface with global communities. The NRKs (non-resident Keralites) support the state, and their contribution is much valued. Foreign remittance is one of the mainstays of our economy. At the same time, this can turn to be a nightmare when such pandemics break out, because we have to extend our hand across the globe to help them out. We have facilitated the maximum number of people to return to Kerala. But it is impossible for all of them to return. I would request them to stay calm and listen to the protocols of respective countries. I am assuring them that their kith and kin here will be taken care of.
Now that the Prime Minister has announced a 21-day lockdown, many states have expressed their concern for the financial challenges.
This is a crisis which we can confront and overcome only by joining hands. The resources of the state are meagre. Unless liberal assistance is provided, we cannot overcome the crisis in the long run. Once the pandemic is dealt with, we should ensure the economy is kick-started. There is no dispute that the pandemic has dented the economy and reviving it needs major measures…. I hope the Prime Minister would be positive enough to understand the gravity.
Kerala is one state that would feel the pinch when there is a global economic slowdown. Are you expecting a huge challenge, as the fear of downturn in the Gulf nations is turning into a reality?
Any global slowdown has its negative effects on Kerala’s economy. The Middle East crisis has been always a major concern for us and we have been deliberating over these issues. The NRKs in the Gulf have a direct connect with our state and even a very small slide in the Middle East can create ripples.
We are fearing major job losses in the Middle East. The economic crisis in the US and Europe will also have its adverse impact on the IT industry and tourism sector. However, our prime concern now is to deal with the emergencies. Let us overcome the crisis unitedly. We are confident.
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