Tuesday 21 April 2020 9:28 PM UTC
Health Minister KK Shailaja began preventative work at the first report of the virus in Wuhan
By Balagopal Kent
While India and majority countries in the world are engaged in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, there is this one state in India, which is looking to get back to normalcy with their fight seeing big improvements in containing the virus spread.
How does Kerala get to do this? According to BBC Monitoring, it is some of the women in Asia who are in the limelight for their role in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
And deservedly Kerala’s Health and Social Welfare Minister KK Shailaja is mentioned first, ahead of South Korea’s chief of the centre for disease control and prevention. Media has already nicknamed her the “Coronavirus Slayer”.
To add stimulus to the clever health minister, the leader, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan provided her with his full backing and ordered the state for a lockdown much before any other state would.
Kerala is only a small state in India and how come it’s becoming a model for the world which beckons this interview.
Minister KK Shailaja or ‘Teacher Amma’ as she is affectionately called by all who have come across her, has proven that desire and attitude matters more than money to tackle an issue.
With a relatively low GDP, compared to those financially developed countries, Kerala was able to achieve which those with the financial backing couldn’t.
KK Shailaja, author of two books – “Indian Varthamanavum Sthreesamamoovahum” and “China – Rashtram, Rashtreeyam Kazchakal”, is a retired teacher who hails from Kannur and represents the Kuthuparamba state assembly constituency.
In an exclusive interview she spoke to Balagopal
Q: Can you please share with us how you began planning when you came to know about Covid-19?
The moment I heard about Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in China in January, I started discussing this with Dr Rajan N. Khobragade, Principal Secretary to Govt for Health & Family Welfare.
Based on our previous experiences we decided to begin preparations immediately by following the standard operations practice according to the World Health Organisation guidelines.
Straightaway we shared information about the Covid-19 virus with the District Medical Officers in all the fourteen districts and asked them to set up a control room and start preparations.
We knew that there were Keralites in Wuhan and they will be arriving soon. We knew from past experiences that we have to move faster.
We ordered all the four international airports to start screening of international passengers and thus began the set procedures and protocols through strict screening, quarantine, isolation and treatment which paved way for us to contain this virus until now.
Q: Recently Jason Hickle, an economic anthropologist said that he was impressed that Kerala has been able to achieve such high levels of health, education and other social outcomes with relatively little GDP. Where did it all start? How was Kerala able to achieve this?
History says that even before the formation of the Kerala state, public health was given importance by the then rulers.
When the first government was set up under EMS Namboodiripad in 1957, he protected the health sector and went ahead to strengthen the administration by taking some pioneering steps to further people’s interests through its policies in agriculture, industry, education, public health, public distribution system, social security measures, decentralisation of power, police policy, administrative reform etc.
The government was able to involve people in all its policies and be part of the governance and this gave them the sense of responsibility.
Therefore, each and every programme, be it in the health or education, today you will see a wider participation from the community. The foundation was already laid for new governments to follow.
Q: The state has seen several challenges over the years in the health sector. How was the state able to overcome it? Can you please share with us on the measures you have taken in the past few years?
Kerala’s health sector has been tested several times in recent years through the Nipah virus outbreak, H1N1, the floods and other issues such as other illnesses affecting our community in particular like the prevalence of lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and others.
According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) there is a surge in infectious diseases which even threatens the existence of human beings all over the world.
Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) have increased in numbers and reappearing elsewhere in different forms within different communities and places.
Therefore, as a priority, we have to be prepared for any eventuality and as a response we have ensured that we have a robust health sector with active participation from the community.
I have travelled to the UK and looked at how the NHS worked there including the GP services and the primary care trusts. I learnt several measures which we could implement in Kerala and we succeeded in several of them.
Following each health scare we learn and implement new measures to address them early. Early intervention and preventative measures by the health sector in a state which has education as one of the prime living factor helps us to achieve any action plan we put in place.
Each Panchayath in Kerala has a Primary Health Care and a Secondary School. The Primary Health Care centre acts as the hub which has a high level of acceptability among the people and connects each and every person in the society.
Action plans agreed on a strategic level gets to grassroots level through the local administration, health care centres, panchayaths, Kudumbashree and Anganwadis. These strong links forms the foundation of our health sector.
Q: Can you please share with us some of the programmes which makes effective early intervention to address the emerging infectious diseases and other illnesses.
We have different programmes to address various issues we face in the health sector. Some of them are state initiatives and some are under the central government programs.
Under Arogya Keralam, which is part of the National Health Mission, we have the Aardram Mission which aims to create a people-friendly health service system, the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) act as a link between the community and health care services, Arogya Sena members visit communities to address communicable diseases, the Suchitwa Malinya Samskarana Padhathy under Suchitwa Mission, Amrutham Arogyam deals with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure and others.
The government has begun free screening and tests for all those above the age of 18 for diabetes and other lifestyle diseases to address it early.
Q: With the first phase of Covid-19 over, what is the next challenge for Kerala?
Yes, we now have moved on from the first phase and now we are slowly opening up our state and therefore we have to be doubly cautious of the second wave.
The health department is watching closely and is prepared for any eventuality. We are also expecting our community members from abroad to return and we are preparing for it too. But we will keep breaking the chain.
Q: With such advancements made in health sector and with the emergence of Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) is it not time for the government to consider looking at producing medicines, equipment and PPEs at home?
Yes, we have explored that option. For example we looked at the option of making masks but for us to prepare the N95 masks we need to have the raw materials coming from another country which are scarce these days.
However, we will be looking to get them once we have overcome the present issues with Covid-19. At present we are looking at all options and means to secure the safety of our people which is primary with what resources we have.
The Excise department has handed over to us the spirit they have seized for us to make sanitizers. These sanitizers are now handed over to hospitals to sanitize the wards and also to Kudumbashree workers.
We are also aware of the risks posed by disposed masks and we are running awareness campaign through local administration and by providing training to Kudumbashree and Anganwadi workers.
Q: There are thousands of nurses from Kerala in overseas hospitals fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of them are without enough PPEs risking their lives. Their families too are going through a difficult phase in their lives. As a health minister who has seen success in fighting the pandemic in Kerala, what message do you have for these nurses.
I receive numerous calls from all over the world in regards to the issues faced. I had received requests from our community in the US asking if we could send them some PPEs and so I could see the desperation.
As a small state we are limited with options in regards to such scale of operations. I can only ask my dear nurses and those who work in the health sectors and others to ensure your safety.
I am very much aware of the difficulties you all face and can only sympathise with you at this present times. I will assure you that I will remember you all and will do anything I could to raise your issues at any forums I have an opportunity to support you all.
Balagopal is the editor of www.ukmalayalee.com
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