How an Indian state with a population of 35 million flattened the COVID curve

They refused to call it “Fake News”

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On January 30, news of coronavirus hit headlines across India. Thrissur, a district in the southern Indian state of Kerala reported the first case of the novel Coronavirus in the country when a student studying in the Wuhan University tested positive.

100 days later, as the virus continues to ravage across the nation, Kerala has managed to flatten the COVID curve, with only 16 active cases at the time of writing. Around 97% of the 482 patients diagnosed have recovered, including an 85-year-old woman and her 92-year-old husband.

Kerala has proved itself as an outlier among the Indian states and has set an example for effective public health management.

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Quick action, effective local administration, widespread testing and the experience of handling the Nipah virus in 2018 played a crucial role in Kerala’s success. When the early cases were reported, the local Keralan authorities were quick to plunge into action. Innovative measures, such as partnering with tour companies to obtain houseboats used to quarantine patients, were implemented by the local authorities in the state famous for its backwaters.

At the forefront of the state’s battle against the pandemic, is K.K Shailaja, a former science teacher and the current health and social minister of Kerala who has been hailed as the “Coronavirus Slayer.” She spearheaded the state’s response to the pandemic and helped formulate a well-organised strategy that tackled the problem at the ground level.

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K. K Shailaja

Airport screenings and tracing started in late January when the rest of the nation was mostly oblivious to the threat of the virus. By February, Shailaja laid the ground rules for the response team that was expected to coordinate its efforts with the public officials. As March rolled in, a partial lockdown was imposed and large gatherings were banned. Tracking, testing and isolation were conducted on a large scale.

By early April, Kerala had conducted close to fifteen thousand tests.

The state government categorised Kerala into green, orange and red zones. Moreover, some places were marked as hotspots and absolutely no travel was allowed in these zones. Grocery stores limited their timings. Local authorities provided groceries to those who were isolating. Daily press conferences were held to inform the public.

A $2.6 billion dollar coronavirus relief package was announced which included delivering food to students depending on free lunches, providing provision through ration stores and setting up community kitchens. Though many of these measures have now been adopted by the central government as well, it was Kerala which first strategized and implemented these actions. It also set up camps for the thousands of migrant workers returning home.

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When Nipah, a dangerous brain-damaging virus, broke out in Kerala in 2018, the state put into action a system that would be able to deal with an emergency public health crisis. Lessons learnt during this outbreak shaped its response to the current pandemic. Drawing from the pages of history, Kerala was able to administer the right response at the right time.

Speaking of the past, Kerala, a state which was born from the merger of Malayalam speaking princely states of Travancore, Kochi and the Malabar district of the Madras presidency, has always been a visionary in terms of public health. The Maharaja of Travancore popularised the use of vaccines in the 19th century. In the 1930s, Dr Krishnan Thampi studied public health at Johns Hopkins University and on returning to Kerala, he helped establish Public Health Centres.

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The state has maintained an excellent record not only in the sphere of public health but also in the sphere of education, boasting a literacy rate close to 95%.

These factors have positively impacted the state’s combat against the coronavirus.

However, there is still time for the commencement of rejoicing as the challenge hasn’t been fully resolved yet. Kerala is bracing itself for another wave and is working tirelessly to avoid it. As stranded Keralites return, chances are that the number of cases will rise.

But here’s to hoping that the state will be able to continue its success story.

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