How Kerala's rock star health minister helped save it from Covid-19. KK Shailaja has been hailed as the reason a state of 35 million people has only lost four to the virus. Here’s how the former teacher did it.
On 20 January, KK Shailaja phoned one of her medically trained deputies. She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied. And so the health minister of the Indian state of Kerala began her preparations.
Four months later, Kerala has reported only 524 cases of Covid-19, four deaths and – according to Shailaja – no community transmission. As such, Shailaja Teacher, as the 63-year-old minister is affectionately known, has attracted some new nicknames in recent weeks – Coronavirus Slayer and Rockstar Health Minister among them. The names sit oddly with the merry, bespectacled former secondary school science teacher, but they reflect the widespread admiration she has drawn for demonstrating that effective disease containment is possible not only in a democracy, but in a poor one.
How has this been achieved? Three days after reading about the new virus in China, and before Kerala had its first case of Covid-19, Shailaja held the first meeting of her rapid response team. The next day, 24 January, the team set up a control room and instructed the medical officers in Kerala’s 14 districts to do the same at their level. By the time the first case arrived, on 27 January, via a plane from Wuhan, the state had already adopted the World Health Organization’s protocol of test, trace, isolate and support.
As the passengers filed off the Chinese flight, they had their temperatures checked. Three who were found to be running a fever were isolated in a nearby hospital. The remaining passengers were placed in home quarantine – sent there with information pamphlets about Covid-19 that had already been printed in the local language, Malayalam. The hospitalised patients tested positive for Covid-19, but the disease had been contained. “The first part was a victory,” says Shailaja. “But the virus continued to spread beyond China and soon it was everywhere.”
At the height of the virus in Kerala, 170,000 people were quarantined and placed under strict surveillance by visiting health workers, with those who lacked an inside bathroom housed in improvised isolation units at the state government’s expense. That number has shrunk to 21,000. “We have also been accommodating and feeding 150,000 migrant workers from neighbouring states who were trapped here by the lockdown,” she says. “We fed them properly – three meals a day for six weeks.” Those workers are now being sent home on charter trains.
When Shailaja’s party came to power in 2016, it undertook a modernisation programme. One pre-pandemic innovation was to create clinics and a registry for respiratory disease – a big problem in India. “That meant we could spot conversion to Covid-19 and look out for community transmission,” Shailaja says. “It helped us very much.”
When the outbreak started, each district was asked to dedicate two hospitals to Covid-19, while each medical college set aside 500 beds. Separate entrances and exits were designated. Diagnostic tests were in short supply, especially after the disease reached wealthier western countries, so they were reserved for patients with symptoms and their close contacts, as well as for random sampling of asymptomatic people and those in the most exposed groups: health workers, police and volunteers.
Shailaja says a test in Kerala produces a result within 48 hours. “In the Gulf, as in the US and UK – all technologically fit countries – they are having to wait seven days,” she says. “What is happening there?”
Places of worship were closed under the rules of lockdown, resulting in protests in some Indian states, but resistance has been noticeably absent in Kerala – in part, perhaps, because its chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, consulted with local faith leaders about the closures. Shailaja says Kerala’s high literacy level is another factor: “People understand why they must stay at home. You can explain it to them.”
Since she does not think the threat of Covid-19 will subside any time soon, what secret would she like to pass on to her successor? She laughs her infectious laugh, because the secret is no secret: “Proper planning.”
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