We started planning before first COVID-19 case was reported: Pinarayi Vijayan

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Friday 17 April 2020

When the first case of a person testing positive to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) was reported in Kerala on January 30, 2020 — most of India knew about the ensuing disease (COVID-19) vaguely as an outbreak somewhere in China.

Kerala, however, was alert to prevent any spread of Nipah (outbreak in 2018) — which also traced back to bats, has no cure / vaccine and killed the state’s citizens (18 of them). The state’s handling of the situation earned it global recognition, including a certificate from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Kerala’s current fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneously ensure that the state doesn't slip into a social or economic crisis is again being talked about as a global example of statecraft. 

At the moment, the state accounted for 395 of India’s 13,387 cases despite being the place to receive the first few patients. Of them, 245 have been cured / discharged, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. That’s 62 per cent of the infected against the national average of 13 per cent.

The death toll has been contained at three.

Kerala used the Nipah experience, deployed massive social protection programmes and managers to ensure smooth functioning even is under lockdown. Down to Earth spoke to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to understand his government’s modus operandi. Edited excerpts:

Jayanta Basu: Congratulations for your Kerala’s performance in countering the COIVD-19 pandemic. How did you react and plan initially, when Kerala became the first state to be affected significantly?

Pinarayi Vijayan: Thanks. We have been planning and preparing since the second half of January. By the time the first case was reported, we had a state-level control room, control rooms in all districts, and guidelines for health officials and local self-governments on measures to be adopted.

We had a standard operating procedure then itself on quarantining, tracing contacts, etc as well as treatment protocols. 

JB: There were several cases initially

PV: When the second set of cases was reported in March, we started a ‘break-the-chain’ campaign. Public Service Enterprises ramped up manufacturing of essential medicines and voluntary organisations were encouraged to produce and distribute masks and sanitisers.

Awareness campaigns were run in educational institutions and movie theatres. The importance of physical distancing and social solidarity was stressed. Additional institutional and personnel support were ensured for our public health systems. 

JB: What about relief for the marginalised?

PV: We announced an economic package in advance so that people could stay indoors without worrying about their lives and livelihoods. Once the ground work was done, we went into lockdown — before the Centre announced it — and focused our public health interventions to gradually reduce the numbers. 

JB: How do you describe your overall model?

PV: First, we adopted stringent measures to limit interaction between people, so the transmission could be curtailed.

Second, we tested on a large scale — the WHO has been repeatedly exhorting countries to test more and more – to identify those infected, trace their contacts to isolate and observe them.

Third, we carried out specialised treatment protocols to cure the COVID-19 patients.

This three-pronged strategy helped us flatten the curve. 

JB: Have the people cooperated fully with the government?  

PV: A special mention needs to be made of the exemplary cooperation extended by the people of Kerala in following the directions issued by the government. Many went into quarantine voluntarily while many assessed the risk on their own and contacted control rooms.

Several volunteered to assist the health department and local self governments in their respective interventions. This selfless cooperation of our general public has played a major role in keeping Kerala safe thus far. It needs to be acknowledged. 

But it is too soon to assume that we are out of danger. We ought to maintain a strict vigil and continue with the interventions mentioned above. We can’t let our guard down. 

JB: How do you explain the high recovery rate?

PV: The credit goes to Kerala’s robust public healthcare system. Right from the first ministry in 1957, led by EMS Namboodiripad, we have intervened in the health sector and taken up focused campaigns to deal with public health issues arising from time to time.

Such interventions have enabled us to achieve enviable indices on child and maternal mortality, life expectancy and so on. 

When health was sought to be made a ‘trade in services’ under the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), Kerala firmly resisted transforming public health services into a profit-making sector for private entities.

The current government has invested substantially in public health systems, particularly through the Aardram Mission, which we have been spearheading to further improve the facilities and services in government hospitals and health centres.

We have also set up an Institute of Advanced Virology and encouraged medical research. 

This focus on public health systems has helped us give quality treatment to the COVID-19 patients in the state. It is this superior quality of treatment that has helped us in achieving such a high recovery rate.

We have successfully treated even international tourists. Elderly patients have also been brought back to life.

JB: How you are preparing for the second wave of infection that, according to experts, is possible once lockdown is lifted?

PV: We have equipped ourselves to tackle any eventuality. We have secured the Indian Council of Medical Research’s approval for our protocol on Convalescent Plasma Therapy. Discussions have been held with doctors and scientists in order to make their expert assistance available in fighting this pandemic.

We have set up COVID-19 hospitals in all districts. Till date, almost 250,000 additional beds have been arranged. Buildings have been identified, sanitised and prepared to serve as isolation wards.  

Young innovators are also joining hands with us in this battle. The Super Fab Lab in Kochi, under the aegis of the Kerala Startup Mission, industry partners and research institutions have been brought together.

A cluster of innovators and investors has been formed at the Industrial Park in Kanjikode, Palakkad. They have taken up the task of ensuring adequate domestic production and distribution of respirators, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, biomedical instruments and personal protection equipments and N95 masks for health care workers.

Indigenous prototypes of ventilators and respirators have been developed as well. 

JB: So, you are confident of overcoming a second wave?

PV: No matter how prepared we are, we need to bear in mind that the entire world is in uncharted waters. This is a completely new situation, and we are all fighting this pandemic based on the knowledge we have gained thus far.

The best we can do at this juncture is to utilise all our skills and experiences in this fight and be hopeful, that we shall overcome. 

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