Watching the Kerala government’s daily briefings on the coronavirus is not just reassuring, it’s also deeply educational—apart from the news of the day, there is also plenty of practical information one needs as the pandemic sweeps through the world.
In February, when India’s first three coronavirus cases were being treated in Kerala, the widespread measures the state government put in place saw results as the daily hospitalisations of suspected cases shrunk consistently.
Even when the second wave of cases hit the state, Kerala was quick to respond because, as health minister K.K. Shylaja told HuffPost India in an interview, they were “keeping strict vigil”. As of Monday, Kerala had 22 coronavirus patients with 10,994 people under observation across the state, of whom 289 were in isolation wards in various hospitals.
A total of 2,147 blood samples had been sent for testing, of which 1,514 results turned out to be negative.
Kerala’s attempts to tackle the disease have won the state government praise from other states and countries. Here are the various steps that Kerala has taken to combat the spread of coronavirus in the state.
1. Contact tracing
With previous experience of virus containment at hand, the state health department initiated a massive tracking exercise to trace a person who came in contact with newly infected people.
At the panchayat level, Asha and ‘kudumbashree’ workers have been asked to track if any people in their respective areas have come from abroad.
“Our officials 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 was all a team effort. Luckily, Kerala has a team of duty-bound officials and experts who managed the situation with extreme dedication and courage,’’ state health minister Shailaja told HuffPost India earlier this month.
2. Route maps
Last week, district authorities began preparing route maps of the infected people, which involves tracking every point from when the patient landed in India or came in contact with an infected person, up to when they were admitted to a hospital. The information gathered includes place and time.
For a family of three that tested positive in Pathanamthitta, around 16 squads led by the District Collector and the District Medical Officer (DMO) travelled across the district to identify the places visited by the family and to track the contacts, a senior medical official of the state told PTI.
“A flow chart was prepared with all the places visited by the family upon their return and have been mentioned in a map, so that people can voluntarily inform authorities if they had come in contact with them,” said minister Shailaja.
The Minister told the state assembly on Friday that the patient flow chart was released as the family was not revealing all the details to the medical department.
The Pathanamthitta DMO told PTI that the authorities received hundreds of calls from various places in the district after the travel map was released.
Rathan Kelkar, Mission Director, National Health Mission, Kerala, who is heading the contact tracing team there, told Deccan Herald, “When we published the Pathanamthitta flowchart we were contacted by 140 people, one of whom turned out to be a primary contact we missed to trace when we did it manually. Now we know they were there and they are on our radar.”
The NewsMinute details how local bodies have played a crucial role in this process.
3. Quarantine comfort
While the Centre’s period of quarantine is 14 days, Kerala is quarantining people for 28 days.
The people who have been in quarantine in the state have had positive things to say. Patients have talked about receiving their choice of meals, being provided wi-fi as well as counselling.
4. Focus on mental health
The state opened multiple call centres to keep check on the mental health of those who are home quarantined.
Dr Amar Fetle, who is in-charge of the anti-COVID-19 task force in Kerala, told The Print, “A live counselling hotline is being used to provide stress relief to the affected people. The mental health division is in constant contact with patients and giving them good psychological support. That itself plays a big part in the recovery process,” he added.
Kerala’s first coronavirus patient, who has completed treatment and been discharged, told The NewsMinute, “In my 25 days in isolation, there were times when I would feel depressed. She (the health inspector) would call and comfort me then. I was in touch with her from the time I had returned from Wuhan and the both of us got very close. I would also speak to the counsellors who would cheer me up.”
5. Visits from govt officials
The health minister herself has been visiting patients. Shailaja told HuffPost India many people had advised her against visiting patients in isolated wards.
“But I took it up as a responsibility. All precautions have been taken but the collective will and determination finally started reaping dividends. Patients, their families and the civil society have cooperated with us in the fight,” she said.
Last week, the minister said health volunteers and police would inspect those who are in home quarantine to ensure that they remain under isolation.
To tackle those breaking quarantine, Shailaja said: “We have been keeping a tab on them through GPS tracking and have found some of them sneaking out. A team consisting of a health worker, police official and health volunteer will visit every home where persons are quarantined and verify their status.”
6. Daily press conferences
What should you if you show symptoms of coronavirus? Should you leave the house when you have a fever? Is it okay to attend certain gatherings?
The Kerala government holds a press conference, led by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and health minister Shailaja, every evening with answers for any questions one may have about the outbreak, including details on the new cases that have been reported that day.
While the media asks the government for clarifications it may need, the ministers also use this time to announce updates or news measures they are taking in view of outbreak’s expansion.
According to Livemint, this was decided upon in agreement with big media houses to stop the spread of rumours.
The press conference is held in a calm and measured manner, with assurances to people that there is no need to panic but exhorting them to remain vigilant and follow advisories.
The CM often uses the opportunity to caution people against spreading fake news or unverified information on COVID-19, being kind to tourists who may be stranded in the state, and advocating for the centre to take steps to ensure the safe return of Indians stranded in the worst-affected countries.
7. Increasing internet connectivity
Last week, the state government announced that it was working with internet service providers to increase connectivity by 30-40% in the state to meet the surge in demand, likely to be of relief to people who are quarantined or need to work from home. This measure was widely praised on social media as one of the unconventional ways in which the government was thinking for the long term.
8. Sanitiser production
The Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd, a public sector undertaking, has assured the state government it would produce enough sanitisers for the state.
“The Kerala state drugs and pharmaceuticals limited has informed the government that they had started manufacturing sanitisers for distribution in the state. They told us that they can produce one lakh bottles within ten days,” Vijayan said.
KSDP will sell these for Rs 125 for a 500 ml bottle. Sanitisers are not available in many medical shops around the country after people began panicking and hoarding them.
9. App to combat fake news
While the state’s police has been directed to take stringent action against those spreading fake news, on Friday the Kerala government launched its app GOKDirect to disseminate information and updates on the outbreak.
The app is available for Android and iOS users and sends SMS alerts to phones that don’t have internet.
10. Mid-day meal delivery
As the government announced on March 10 that all classes, including at madrasas, anganwadi centres and private tutorial institutions, would remain closed till the end of the month, the CM assured that the government would home-deliver the mid-day meals provided at anganwadi centres across the state.
The move has received widespread praise.
Taking a cue from this, the Karnataka government said it would deliver groceries to the homes of children studying in anganwadis while they remain shut this week.
11. Checking rail and road entry points
On Sunday, as two new cases were reported in the state, Kerala government launched intensified medical check-ups at 24 spots bordering Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for people entering the state by rail and road.
“A special team will monitor all the passengers of inter-state trains at the first station inside Kerala borders. The team will comprise one paramedical staff, a policeman and a local volunteer and they can examine two bogies at a time. For example, if there are 12 bogies for a train, there will be six such teams to examine all passengers,” Vijayan said.
The train passengers would also get an SMS alert, saying they would be checked at the first station the train touches after entering Kerala.
The state government has also identified 24 points in the border road areas of Kerala from north to south and a separate team, headed by a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) will monitor those who travel by vehicles.
“We know that all these restrictions pose so much trouble to the people. But since we are going through an extraordinary situation, we request everyone to cooperate with the officials. It’s in the best interests of the state and the people,” Vijayan said.
12. Awareness among migrant workers
Vijayan said, “We have asked the officials to visit migrant labour camps in the state and create awareness among them by using those who can speak their language. We have also given instructions to keep their localities clean.”
The CM has been tweeting instructions and helpline numbers in Hindi and Bengali.
13. Break the chain initiative
On Sunday, the health department launched a “breaking the chain” campaign to encourage hand sanitising among people in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“There are chances of the virus being spread through our hands. Sanitising our hands will break the chain and prevent the spread of the virus. We must use hand sanitisers or wash the hands with soap and maintain personal hygiene. We need to spread awareness on hand hygiene campaign,” Vijayan said.
14. Enlisting volunteers for help
With 22 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the state has enrolled volunteers to assist the health department after special training by officials.
The response to call for volunteers has been “overwhelming”, Kelkar said.
He added, “We needed additional volunteers for ensuring the medical check-ups of passengers coming through the border. We have received many requests and will provide them appropriate training.”
15. Batting and prepping for foreign arrivals
The state government has opposed the Centre’s circular barring the return of Indians from coronavirus-hit countries such as Italy unless they produce a certificate that proves they have tested negative for the infection.
Last week, the state assembly passed a resolution moved by the CM which said the circular was “inhuman” and was akin to “cruelly abandoning” expatriate Indians.
Minister Shailaja said the state expects people “who are working abroad for their livelihood” to return to Kerala and added that the health department was gearing up to receive them.
“We have asked the Centre to allow those in Italy to travel to India and they can be kept in quarantine in case they test positive on arrival,” Vijayan said.
The state government has also sought the assistance of the Centre to help the expatriates, using diplomatic intervention, to extend the Visa and leave of those who are in the country.
But some of the state’s measures have been criticised as well.
Prisons manufacturing masks
On Saturday, Pinarayi tweeted photos of a batch of masks produced by prisoners in the state to combat shortage.
“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,” he said.
The move has raised some ethics concerns over questions of how well the prisoners are paid for their labour.
The Kerala Prisons director-general had issued a directive last week asking tailoring units attached to prisons in seven districts to start production of re-usable cotton masks in coordination with the In-house Drug Bank (IHDB) of the government SAT Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram.
On Friday, the Kerala Assembly was adjourned sine die in view of the virus outbreak. However, before adjournment, all the outstanding demands for grants, the Kerala Appropriation Bill and Kerala finance bills were passed without discussion.
The Congress-led UDF, which is in the opposition, called this “undemocratic” and a “bad precedent”.