06/03/2020 5:58 PM IST | Updated 06/03/2020 7:01 PM IST

Coronavirus Slayer: How Kerala Health Minister Is Deftly Containing The Health Scare

KK Shailaja won widespread praise for Kerala's efficient handling of the coronavirus outbreak which has plunged many countries into panic mode and sent stock markets crashing.

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Kerala health minister KK Shailaja (second from left) holds a meeting with officials to discuss ways of tackling coronavirus.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath may have his own reasons to claim that coronavirus can be kept away by doing yoga and overcoming mental stress. But Kerala’s Health Minister K.K. Shailaja, who set a model for the rest of the world by successfully handling India’s first three coronavirus positive patients from the state, has some simple advice for the monk who heads India’s largest state.

“Fighting an epidemic like corona requires scientific temper, humanism and a spirit for inquiry and reform. Superstition, credulity, emotionalism and irrationalism will derail the whole process by dispiriting and discouraging the experts and health activists who try hard to resolve the threat scientifically. In Kerala, we have initiated stringent police action against those who attempted to spread stupidity in the face of virus scare. That was among the main reasons why Kerala made some early advantages in checking the spreading of the virus,’’ the school teacher-turned-politician, normally addressed as Shailaja teacher, told HuffPost India in an interview.

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The 63-year-old won widespread praise for the state’s efficient treatment of the three people who had tested positive for the virus that has plunged many countries into panic mode and sent stock markets crashing. Shailaja and her team, who had been watching out for signs of the epidemic since early media reports from China, immediately sprung into action, identifying the points of contact and quarantining thousands of people. In this, they were helped by the experience gained while fighting two outbreaks of the Nipah virus in 2018 and 2019.    

The first-time minister, who unassumingly says that she had “very little exposure to the field of medical science” until she took over the post, credits her years of teaching Physics and Chemistry, as well as her experience as a Left activist, in understanding the need for scientific temper and reasoning.    

“I strictly followed scientists and experts than those who eulogise on the imagined benefits of cow dung and cow urine,’’ said Shailaja.

The minister, who hails from Mattannur in Kannur district, acknowledges that ministers may not be subject experts in the portfolios allotted to them.

“But you can make a difference by keeping your eyes and ears open. You can read a lot on coronavirus on the internet. The latest information can be accessed. I am using late-night hours to read such articles rather than going behind the superstitious claims of India’s Hindutva right. The only requirement for you is the ability to grasp,’’ she said.

As of Friday, 31 people have tested positive for coronavirus in India, which includes six people from Agra and one from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, two people from Delhi and a group of 14 Italian tourists and their driver, who were quarantined in the capital before being moved to hospital in Gurugram.

Shailaja has some advice specifically for the chief ministers dealing with suspected coronavirus cases, especially Adityanath and Arvind Kejriwal.

“Ensure that the whole administrative set-up is keeping reason and science above superstition. Facilitate better coordination among scientists, experts, doctors with proven capabilities and public health specialists. Don’t hide or suppress anything from the people. There must be extreme transparency and accountability in the interventions and any official attempt to manipulate the data would backfire,’’ she said.

How Kerala tackled coronavirus early

Shailaja said she noticed by chance some news articles from Wuhan in China which spoke of the emergence of Coronavirus. At that time, even people in China had not been alerted to the dangers of an outbreak. But Shailaja’s experience with Nipah had taught her to always be watchful.

“I just thought of the possibility of Keralite youngsters who study for medicine and engineering in Wuhan getting affected with the disease and then returning to Kerala, causing its spread here. Immediately, I rang up the Kerala Health secretary and shared my concern,’’ said the minister.

That was the beginning.

With the health secretary finding the minister’s concern valid, the state immediately initiated a massive drive aimed at the virus. It had already developed a strong chain of command, starting from the top health department officials in Thiruvananthapuram to the field workers on the ground.

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KK Shailaja at a meeting of government and health officials at the Thrissur Collectorate after India's first coronavirus patient was reported in Kerala on January 30, 2020.

In an interview with Nidheesh M.K. for Livemint, Shailaja had described how their calculations were proved right, with the first Malayali from Wuhan arriving by 30 January.

“But we had traced her before she came here. Airport authorities were asked to inform us as soon as her plane lands. So, when she landed, we sent her directly to an isolation ward set up in a hospital in her hometown, Thrissur. Since she had interacted with her family at the airport, they were also sent to isolation,” Shailaja told Livemint, detailing the effort that went into tackling the virus. 

The three patients reported in the state were all medical students from Wuhan, hailing from Alappuzha, Thrissur and Kasaragod districts. They have now been discharged from hospitals and none of them are under quarantine at home. All of them are grateful to the state government and the minister for ensuring them the best available care. 

In a recent interview to The Week, the first student who tested positive had said that Shailaja’s visits to the isolation ward were a “huge relief”.

“When teachers started giving online classes from Wuhan, I was able to connect because the ward had all facilities including Wi-Fi connection. I got whatever I wanted to eat. I ate a lot of biriyani,’’ she said.

Shailaja says 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. The opposition parties also extended full support,’’ she said.

Not complacent

While the immediate threat has receded in the state, Shailaja and her team are far from complacent.

“The war against coronavirus in Kerala is not over. We were able to contain the threat but not in a position to say we are completely safe. We are keeping strict vigil on airports, hotels and tourist centres. Students who are returning home from abroad are being scanned,’’ said the minister, who conducts review meetings on a daily basis. 

NurPhoto via Getty Images
Tourists complete declarations stating they have not recently traveled to China and that they are not experiencing any symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus at Trivandrum International Airport in Thiruvananthapuram Kerala, on 3 February 2020. 

According to Shailaja, Kerala is fully equipped to deal with the coronavirus threat based on the strict protocol set out by the Indian Council of Medical Research and National Institute of Virology.

“The two Nipah outbreaks have given us a sense of direction. Our officials had 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,’’ she said. 

Among the Indian states, Kerala is the only one which strictly mandates 28 days of home quarantine for those returning from COVID-19 countries. At the national level and in other states, the quarantine period is 14 days.

At the time of filing this report, 4,782 people in Kerala had been brought under surveillance at isolation wards in hospitals and quarantined at home. Authorities have also been going the extra mile to address the anxiety and frustration felt by those returning from China and other affected nations. When students and professionals connected to China faced stigma in society, the state government launched a mass media campaign with motivational messages and psychological support. A dozen people have been arrested for spreading rumours and superstition related to the disease.

“With the police acting tough against those who spread false information like cow dung can cure corona, vested interests have clearly understood that we will not tolerate their gimmicks. That helped a lot,’’ said the minister.  A total of 215 trained experts have been deployed in the state for ensuring tele-counselling services to those who fear they may be infected with the virus.

“In the initial days, after taking charge as minister, lack of expertise was an issue for me. But I gained a clear grasp with the help of the officials. Now I am maintaining direct links with different ranks of officials in the department without considering protocol. Any staff member can call me anytime to share any grievance,” said the minister. 

Health officials in full protective apparel carry medical waste out of an isolation ward of Ernakulam Medical College, where 12 suspected coronavirus patients were kept in quaratine, in Kochi on February 4, 2020. 

At her office, a 20-member team constantly keeps track of the coronavirus situation globally. “Empathy and transparency are my investments in this field,’’ she said.

In an interview with Sreedevi Jayarajan from The NewsMinute, the first student had said that Kerala’s health system had inspired her so much that she wanted to finish her studies in Wuhan and return to work in her home state.

Shailaja also acknowledges Kerala’s example in the area of public health. 

“We have just started an institute of virology studies in Thiruvananthapuram and there is renewed focus on evolving a long-term action plan that can effectively address any virus scare in the future.  Other than viruses, I am always concerned about keeping aloft Kerala’s hard-earned gains in the field of public health. Our government hospitals are a model for the whole country as they match with private ones in terms of facilities, expertise and infrastructure. Health continues to be inexpensive in Kerala,’’ she pointed out.

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