Interview: KK Shailaja hails scientific, pro-people policies for Kerala’s success
A candid conversation with Kerala ex-health minister who refused the Magsaysay award!
You can listen to this interview here.
Back in January 2020, when COVID-19 was just a piece of news about an infectious virus spreading in China’s Wuhan and not a matter of grave concern that would shift the world like never before, a health minister in an Indian state picked up her telephone and started making enquiries to find out about the disease. Having dealt with the deadly virus, Nipah, earlier, she knew how serious things could get and began putting a protocol in place much before the entire country. She and her government received global applause for the way they handled the pandemic. It was KK Shailaja, the then health minister of Kerala and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In a candid conversation with Indie Journal, Shailaja talks about her role during the pandemic, the significance of Kerala’s governance and what’s there to come next.
While all other states in India were still trying to understand COVID and what protocol to put in place, Kerala had already begun preparations, right when cases were detected in Wuhan. What was the objective behind the early action in Kerala? Was it the experience with the Nipah virus?
The first COVID case was reported in Kerala on January 30, 2020. We started our preparation before that. I happened to read an article that a potential virus is spreading in Wuhan. We discussed with my health secretary and my team, what should be done if the virus comes to Kerala. There are many Malayali students in Wuhan, so there was a chance they would return.
On January 24, we had a rapid response team for this and on January 26, we started our control room. We also formed expert groups. We deployed health teams at the four airports in the state. We examined those coming from abroad for symptoms and quarantined them.
We got the first case on January 30. We admitted that medical student to Thrissur Medical College. On February 2, we got the second case in Alleppey and we found the third student in Kasargod. We admitted them to government isolation. No spread occurred out of them. Then there was an interim period of two weeks where everyone thought the virus would not come back. But we did not stop our work.
We watched the world news, literature. We found the virus was spreading to different countries like Italy, France, UK, etc. So we kept or vigilance. We had that lesson from the Nipah virus incident. Our slogan at the time was Trace, Quarantine, Test, Isolate and Treat. At that time, WHO was saying test-test-test, nothing else. But we did not follow that. Testing everybody is not a must. Testing the symptomatic cases, quarantining the suspected cases and isolating the positive cases, was our method in Kerala and it worked well.
I think that was something that was followed across the country later on, which you say Kerala has been doing right from the beginning. What was the role of good health infrastructure in this preparedness? Because we saw in other states that the attempt to improve this infrastructure began after the pandemic began, but Kerala has been working for it even before.
Our slogan was to keep the potential of the virus under the health system capacity threshold. We knew our strength. But we anticipated that the system would exhaust when the cases go up.
We decided to delay the peak of the virus. That was the most scientific and important decision. Some people are criticising that the peak occurred late in Kerala. But we delayed it intentionally by breaking the chain of the spread. During that time, we definitely got breathing space to improve our health system. Other places used the mitigation method and the virus spread to the whole population all of a sudden. They did not get any time to improve their health system.
During this time, we worked hard to improve infrastructure by making more ICUs, procuring more Oxygen cylinders, increasing Oxygen production. We also took over some buildings outside of hospitals and furnished them as COVID treatment centres. We asked the local self-government bodies to open domicile care centres anticipating a high increase in the number of cases.
We planned everything and implemented it with the help of the health community, local self-governments and all government departments. We prepared a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) not only for the health department but for the other departments as well. With a decentralised planning and action and a scientific approach, we were able to put the virus under the health system threshold.
It was not just the health department of the Kerala Government that received appreciation for the work done during the pandemic. Kerala’s education model, COVID relief packages were also applauded. What were the key factors in Kerala’ success and how much of a role does the policies of the government and the ruling party play in that success?
It is definitely a left-oriented, pro-people policy. Before COVID was even declared a pandemic, we declared a health emergency in Kerala. The government declared Rs 20,000 crores worth package for COVID. We supplied the free medicines, free treatment to all citizens, no matther if they were at a government hospital or a private in 2020. That way, we motivated the people and assured them that the government was there. No chaos happened in Kerala, everyone was calm and quiet.
We had opened hundreds of community kitchens across the state. Volunteers made food here and distributed it to people’s homes. We even distributed food kits to all families, even the rich families, as no one could leave their homes to buy essentials. We also supplied other medicines to the elderly people. There was no scarcity on any medicines in the state. We trained counsellors in the state to call COVID patients in the state and talk to them.
You are now known as 'Covid slayer' since the pandemic. A lot of displeasure was expressed against the party leadership after it was revealed that you would not be a part of the new cabinet after LDF came to power in Kerala for the second consecutive year. Something similar was seen after your name was announced for the Raman Magsaysay award that you later declined. What would you say about this?
I am not a virus slayer, viruses are everywhere, sometimes it will get cruel and infectious and sometimes it won’t. We should prepare ourselves to fight against these viruses. In 2020 we worked hard to suppress the virus and we got a very good result. During that time, the whole world was suffering, most nations like the UK and Sweden accepted the mitigation method. The Prime Minister of Sweden said that 'Don't imitate us, we were wrong to accept this mitigation method'.
While this was happening, Kerala was defeating the virus. That time in an interview with Laura Spinney for the Guardian, she called me 'Coronavirus slayer'. Even in that interview, I said that Kerala has a bulk of expatriates who are living outside, and when they come back the cases will increase. But we were prepared and because of this preparation, we could put the mortality rate below 1 percent and no one died without getting oxygen or a bed in the hospital.
Former #Kerala Health Minister and CPI-M MLA from Mattanur assembly constituency, K.K. Shailaja has said that she refused to give her consent to accept the Ramon Magsaysay Award going by the party's decision.— IANS (@ians_india) September 4, 2022
Photo: @shailajateacher pic.twitter.com/sX6I7NjoBn
A person alone cannot do anything, I have a very good team. This is a collective achievement and as a person, being the health minister at that time my job was to lead the health team. We made the whole health community active, the health community was quite enthusiastic. For this part, the people appreciated me. But this does not mean that I was alone up there. For the awards part of it, sometimes some appreciation will come.
About why I did not make a comeback is because there are many more like me, they can come and do as per their will and make a difference the way I did. When I accepted the position as the health minister, I was just a political worker, as previously I was a three-time MLA, I was not a minister. I worked hard and sincerely, but this does not mean that I should continue for the next round. I did not continue and now I am working as a member of the Kerala legislative assembly and also as CPM’s central committee member. There is a lot of work yet to do. I believe that there is some space everywhere and we should accept, enjoy and work sincerely with that space. Then we will never think about who I am and I am not there in the cabinet again.
In times when the country's power centre is trying to push towards privatising more and more public establishments, what does Kerala's success in the management of the pandemic tell us about the significance of state and good governance?
What is meant by good governance? It means that the rulers are addressing the cry of the poor people and fulfil their needs. They should get food, clothes, education, and after the age of 18, they should get jobs and wages. How can we be democratic without giving the people an opportunity to enjoy their rights. Good governance means giving all people this opportunity.
In Kerala, we are trying to do that. It is not easy. This is federal system, all the taxes are going to the Central Government and we only get a tax share to rule. We have to do 65 percent of the social welfare activities as state’s own responsibility. But we get very meagre tax share. With that, we cannot do magic. But through decentralisation, people’s participation and without corruption, we are utilising the money. We are trying. Corruption is there, in the capitalist country, Kerala cannot stand as an island. But Kerala planned well.
From 2016 to 2020, we started a mission in health sector among others, to improve the infrastructure and to decentralise the clinical pactice to the primarily level. With people’s participation, we are implementing these, we are doing some experiments and we are succeeding in those. It is a herculean task, but we are getting results out of that. That is the Kerala model. But we need to sustain. If a state has low income, everything will collapse one day. So Kerala is trying to make the social welfare measures sustainable. That is why our Chief Minister said that we are trying to convert the Kerala society into a knowledgeable society by developing skills, entrepreneurship and reforms. Without improving the education sector, no society can improve to the contemporary style.
I would like to ask you about being a woman in a position of power. Does that help make the policies more inclusive?
Women should come to the forefront. We have proved several times that women can take up all these responsibilities. When the reservation was introduced for women in the local self-government bodies, everyone started doubting the fate of those gram panchayats if women become presidents. But women worked hard and became good presidents and good chairpersons. Of course, there are some failures, but there are failures among men as well.
In Parliament and assemblies, reservation should come. But the government is not even introducing it now. In other countries, even in developing countries, there is more participation of women in decision-making bodies. But in India it’s low. That should change.
As far as inclusivity is concerned, depends on the policy of the government. If women come everywhere, but the policy is not good, nothing will happen. There are so many women in capitalist ideology parties. The focus needs to be given to the ideology. If ideology is pro-people and women also are there, something will happen. In Kerala, we made a difference because of the left ideology. And not only left, if the ideology is democratic, there is scientific thinking, that will also work out.
If after independence, Congress had worked for democracy, if land reforms had taken place, feudalism and caste disparities would have gone away. They did not do it. The democratic revolution did not happen. That is why the left democratic parties are talking about people’s democratic revolution. But we are few. Feudalism, caste disparities, superstitions are still here. In Kerala, we are trying to change things. Open caste discrimination is not here. Many social reformers, political activists worked hard for this. Now someone is trying to pull it back to the dark days. That, we cannot agree with.
We see communal tensions and polarisation rampant in the different parts of the country in last few years. We see them getting more intense and open. How is the Kerala government managing this situation?
We are insisting people to be secular in our state. There are people of over six religions in India - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Parsi, Jains, etc. If people try to quarrel with each other or one religion tries to suppress the other there will be struggle and violence will come out of that and we cannot stay safe. We have more than 6,400 castes here, different systems of marriage, different eating habits, all these disparities. India is our country. We’re working for Indian country.
India is our country, not a Hindu country or a Muslim country. We are Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, we have several castes and we are discriminating against people according to that. Religious fundamentalists are taking gains out of it. That is the election generated politics, they want to have the power and to get that power they should have some votes from the downtrodden people. Sometimes they will give some seats to them which is not sufficient. They are not given proper education, job or proper opportunities to move freely but they are cheating them, and people are going behind fundamentalists and superstition forced propaganda. That is the fate of India.
People should understand where we are standing, what is our aim and how to build this country. That is a huge task and without a change in the mindset, we cannot achieve it. India should become scientific. Scientific thinking is the most important thing. Then only we can change the mindset and life of all human beings and their identity as human beings, not as Hindus or Muslims. They (people) have to work for the country together, for the common purpose. That is unity and diversity and if we cannot achieve that, India will collapse.
This brings us to the question of what's next. All political parties have begun preparing for 2024. The opposition parties are deciding to put up a united front. What is CPM’s take on that? Also, what is CPM’s take on the Bharat Jodo Yatra by Congress that has reached Kerala?
Everyone should try, all the left and democratic parties. We are not against any individual, we are against fundamentalism, false beliefs, anti-people propaganda, the capitalist mode of exploitation and the feudal mode of discrimination. Anyone who wants to oppose these things should unite. And the unity should not be limited only to elections. An election alliance will be formed to win some votes or to get some seats in the assembly. But this should not be the goal, we should unite for India to save India’s democracy, to save India’s constitution.
Elections are also important, I think all the democratic parties or the fronts will unite. The CPI(M) leaders have also put forward the aim in front of the Indian citizens that “we are for saving the Indian Constitution Rights”. There will be some movements like that. But sometimes, people unite to get seats and this will not work. Yet there is hope.