The Kerala government has deservedly received praise from across the world for its prompt response and efficient handling of the coronavirus pandemic that left world leaders scrambling to minimise the damage. However, the state now faces some considerable challenges even as it has eased restrictions to allow some economic activity to resume.
Kerala had just about flattened the curve when the return of non-resident Malayalis to the state triggered a spike, leading to an increase in active COVID-19 cases again.
At its lowest point, active cases in the state were at just 16 on May 8, with only one case confirmed that day. New cases had been steadily declining with no new cases reported on several days preceding this. But May 8 marked a turning point, with Kerala soon reporting new cases in double digits every day.
On Wednesday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, “We will have to intensify surveillance and also strictly enforce lockdown in critical areas. The state will be facing a dangerous situation if the number of positive cases increases considerably.”
The rise in cases comes as the state faces challenges on multiple fronts.
1. Return of migrants
Kerala has a significant migrant population and the state had been anticipating and planning for their return much before it opened up, by expanding the number of hospital beds and quarantine centres to accommodate more people.
The state’s registration process to allow for the return of people stranded in various countries and states began on April 26.
Manorama reports that on May 6, when the first two flights bearing evacuees landed, only 14,750 people in the state were under observation in both homes and hospitals, with 30 active COVID-19 cases.
On May 20, a fortnight later, 74,398 people were under surveillance in Kerala and the number of active cases had grown by five times to 161.
CM Pinarayi said that 4.42 lakh expatriates from the state had registered on the non-resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department to return home, as instructed by the state government. Apart from this, 1,80, 540 migrants had also registered to return from other states in India.
The state is set to witness the biggest influx of mass returnees from abroad due to the COVID-19 crisis, Dr S. Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies, told Manorama.
The inflow of returnees is expected to continue till December.
Times of India’s report on Thursday said 41 of the 59,945 people who had returned by road and train had tested positive. In the last 10 days, 67 persons who had returned to state from abroad have tested positive.
2. Monsoon season
The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority has instructed district administrations and the local self government institutions to get ready to deal with the monsoon while fighting COVID-19.
Kerala received its normal quota of summer showers between March 1 and 14. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted a normal monsoon, with the southwest monsoon expected to set in on Kerala on June 5.
However, the Weather Company, a subsidiary of IBM, has predicted that India is likely to have an “unusually wet” and “above normal” monsoon this year due to La Nina conditions.
Experts consulted by the CM have said that even if it is a normal monsoon, the state could receive heavy rains in August.
With water levels in dams also higher than usual, scientists and river protection groups had earlier this month written to the Kerala chief secretary asking for a special safety protocol for rescue and relief operations, in the eventuality of floods and landslides.
The 2019 monsoon resulted in rampant landslides across north Kerala, with 101 people killed. In 2018, the state witnessed its worst flood in a century in which at least 483 people lost their lives.
Dr B Ekbal, chairmain of the Kerala state expert committee on coronavirus, told The New Indian Express, “The departments of Local Self Government, Revenue and Health have discussed the issue and they have chalked out a strategy. The health department has prepared a protocol on dealing with the patients separately.”
CM Pinarayi said the Kerala State Disaster Management (KSDMA) had been entrusted with formulating a plan. Volunteers registered on the government’s portal will be given training on disaster management and response.
Pinarayi said SDMA had identified and begun the process of taking over buildings other than the 27,000 for COVID-19 patients, as those affected by an emergency could not be housed along with them.
Fahad Marzook, in charge of hazard analysis with KSDMA, told PTI, “We have the experience of two worst floods in previous two years. We devised a specific plan while keeping in mind the COVID-19 situation. This is because the COVID-19 patients, or the aged and those with serious illness will have to be accommodated separately.”
KSDMA plans for four types of buildings to house people – general category, the elderly, those showing COVID symptoms, and those in home quarantine.
Marzook said that in a high-level meeting chaired last week by Vijayan, directions had been given to officials about cleaning rivers, streams and canal paths, which is expected to be completed within a week.
Reservoirs in Kerala, including the Idukki dam, are being closely monitored. The water level in Idukki dam was at 2,343.7 feet on Thursday. While the state’s power minister said this is not a cause for concern yet, Manorama pointed out that in 2019, the water level had rapidly increased from 2,342 ft to 2,373ft after it rained heavily for 30 days.
3. Economic crisis
At the end of April, CM Vijayan said the lockdown to contain COVID-19 had cost the state an estimated Rs 80,000 crore, as per initial estimates by experts.
A study by the Kerala State Planning Board at the request of the state government, for the period from March 25 to May 3, 2020, put wage losses by self-employed and casual workers in the range of Rs 14,000-15,000 crore.
Kerala tourism, which yields an annual income of Rs 45,000 crore, was estimated to lose about Rs 20,000 crore in 2020-21. One lakh people were expected to lose their jobs across various sectors.
The total loss in terms of remittances to the state in January-February 2020 is estimated to be Rs 2,399.97 crore.
The Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), an autonomous institution under the state government, was tasked with a study on the economic and fiscal impact of COVID-19.
On May 15, Pinarayi said the state’s revenue and fiscal deficits would go up dramatically, with health and social sector expenditure rising exponentially.
The state’s finance minister Thomas Isaac has expressed reservations with the Centre’s decision to increase borrowing limit of states from 3% to 5% of the revenue. Isaac said Kerala expected a revenue loss of nearly Rs 35,000 crore this year, so even if the state got the full benefit of the increase in borrowing limit, Kerala would only get an additional loan of Rs18,087 crore. “It means that we can only make up for half the estimated revenue loss through this,” he said, according to The Frontline.
Isaac is also not happy with conditions imposed on increased borrowing limit, which will be linked to reforms undertaken by the states. “The borrowing limit should be based on the State’s revenues approved in the Union Budget, and not based on the current situation. It should be ensured that the States can borrow at affordable rates, or they should be allowed to borrow from the Reserve Bank of India. The Centre should also provide the outstanding GST amount. The State is against imposing conditions on the drawing of loans. There is no point in imposing such conditions on spending, which are according to the priorities of each State,” he said.
The state has been asking the Centre for its GST arrears, which add up to around Rs 2,000 crore.
“If the GST arrears had been given, we would have had more breathing space and could have avoided some borrowing or saved the borrowing for a later time. But instead, the Centre is giving money in small drops,” R Ramkumar, a member of state Planning Board, told The NewsMinute.
In an interview to The Outlook, Isaac said that the return of lakhs of migrant from abroad would have severe impact on remittances, which amount to nearly 25% of the state’s GDP. “Coupled with loss in production, jobs, services due to lockdown, reverse multiplier impact of remittance is going to have a major impact on the economy, particularly the service sector and trade,” he said.