Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja speaks to The Indian Express on why the state government is not worried about the high number of active cases being reported from the state.
Kerala has the highest number of active cases, it is reporting the maximum number of cases every day, almost one fourth of the national tally. Why are the numbers not coming down?
Kerala has been making a systematic effort to control the pandemic. In a pandemic, there will be a peak, no matter how we try to control it. Otherwise, there should be a complete lockdown and when there is no total lockdown, the Covid pandemic will have one peak season. And our strategy has been delaying the peak, to avoid a sudden peak which would lead to crisis in hospitalisation and a rise in the number of deaths. With our tracing-quarantaine-break the chain programme, we delayed the peak which helped us to improve our health system – more beds, more ICUs, oxygen flow etc. We got that time. In some states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the peak came quite fast and the number of deaths went up. The system could not control the situation and the death toll went up to thousands daily. But in Kerala, our daily death toll never went beyond 25 — mostly elderly people or with comorbidity. Kerala’s achievement has been limiting deaths. Even now, a state with such population density, the death rate is half per cent. The state reached the peak, steadily, not all of a sudden. Considering the population density and other issues, the number was predicted to cross 20,000, but we have not reached that level.
Kerala’s surge started in September and the festival season of Onam and some political activities were blamed. But other states also had festivals like Diwali and Chhath etc. But no other state faced this kind of a situation.
Actually, there was no such rise in the festival season also. See, in a pandemic, it gets spread to maximum number of people and then comes down. In other states, the cases went up and started coming down, but resulted in more number of deaths. Our main purpose for the strategy was to prevent the spread to maximum number of people at once and limit the number of deaths. We never faced a crisis with hospital beds or shortage of health workers. Not at a single point, more than 25 per cent of our ventilators were occupied by Covid patients. Other patients also continued to be treated in hospitals.
Are you satisfied with the results of your efforts?
We have taken maximum care and efforts. I do not feel guilty at all. But we did not want any deaths to happen. However, in a normal year, we have many deaths due to infectious diseases. In fact, the number of deaths in Kerala in 2020 is less than that of the previous year. That’s what the statistics till November showed. We are waiting for the December tally. Once it is done, we will publicise the data.
Are people following guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks?
No matter how intense our awareness campaign is, a small section of people will always flout the protocols. We cannot expect 100 per cent compliance in any society. With widespread and intense campaign, 80 per cent of the population started wearing masks and using hand sanitisers. Otherwise, the state would have been worse than Maharashtra. We have good health facilities, but we have three big challenges – population density, the high number of old age population, and lifestyle diseases.
The state government has requested the Centre to give Kerala priority in providing the vaccine. What is its response?
The Centre points out Kerala still has the highest number of cases. But there is another issue here — the reporting system. It will get exposed soon. While we were told about other states which do not project the actual number of cases, Kerala’s reporting system is really effective. We do not leave a single case unnoticed. The Centre is aware of it also. Even in Thursday’s meeting, the Centre did not blame the state. In the meeting, I pointed out that even in high peak, our number is less than that of many other states.
In the meeting on vaccine, I told them that Kerala should get it on an emergency basis. I also demanded that keeping the population and its vulnerability in mind, the state should get more vaccines. I have informed them the state is ready for vaccine distribution and waiting. There was no denial from their side, nor was there an assurance. I think we will get priority.
What is the biggest challenge for you now?
Now that everything has opened — when the Centre lifts the lockdown, the state cannot continue strict lockdown — controlling the cases is even more tougher. Opening up is also necessary to keep the economy going and people will have to work for livelihood. Now our biggest challenge is to protect the old age population from getting affected. We are focusing on reverse quarantine and there are thousands of health workers working hard on getting it implemented. So far, we have managed it, I cannot talk about tomorrow.
Has the outbreak of other diseases like bird flu or mutated strains complicated the state’s efforts?
Kerala’s terrain is fertile for infectious diseases. It is our effective health system and the state government’s effort that prevent grave calamities in the state. The number of water bodies in Kerala attract a lot of migratory birds and the state becomes prone to diseases like avian flu.
There is also an issue — a single death in Kerala is reported nationally and internationally. Some other states had so many deaths, but it never got such attention from the media. As the state has been effectively handling the issue, any casualties get reported also. Nothing is getting noticed in Kerala, still we have managed this much.