Josephine Varghese: Impressed by Jacinda Ardern’s leadership during the pandemic? Meet K.K. Shailaja, Health Minister of Kerala

Josephine Varghese: Impressed by Jacinda Ardern’s leadership during the pandemic? Meet K.K. Shailaja, Health Minister of Kerala

New Zealand and its prime minister Jacinda Ardern have received international attention and praise, rightly so, for decisive leadership, clear communication and scientific management of the coronavirus pandemic. Observers point out that the nation has been through multiple crises under Ardern’s leadership – such as the Christchurch terrorist attack and the White Island volcanic eruption last year. The international discussions about Ardern and other women leaders invariably remind me of K.K. Shailaja, or Shailaja teacher as she is fondly known (also, now, “coronavirus slayer”), the Health Minister of my home state Kerala in India, who has led the state successfully in the face of two viral disease outbreaks. K.K. Shailaja, a former school science teacher and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) currently presides over the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Social Welfare in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala, that came to power in 2016.


The 2018 Nipah Virus Outbreak

The Nipah virus hit Kerala in 2018, the same year the state was ravaged by the worst floods witnessed in 100 years. Kerala, under the leadership of the Left Democratic Front government and an unprecedented mobilisation of the civil society, was steadily recovering from the devastation of the floods when the deadly virus hit. The virus that had led to the death of patient zero and three members of his family was identified as the ‘Nipah virus’, one never seen before in Kerala.

This contagious virus (spread through bodily fluids like saliva), with a fatality rate of 40-75% is much deadlier than Covid-19. K.K. Shailaja was at the helm of that battle against it- gearing into action immediately- organising rapid action task forces and collaborating effectively with local administration and the medical community at local, national and global levels. The strategy was clear- a humane and scientific response backed by the resources and capability of the state infrastructure. Systematic tracing, testing, isolation and support were undertaken rigorously. The mission was successful. Kerala was able to arrest the Nipah virus within the local area, recording 18 deaths in the outbreak.


Covid 19 outbreak in Kerala- Three Phases

Kerala was the first state to record a Covid-19 case in India, back in January 2020. The patient was a medical student returning from Wuhan university, China- the epicentre of the pandemic. With an area about 1/7th that of New Zealand (38,863 km²) and a population that is 7 times larger (34.8 million), the challenge Kerala faced was formidable. The government of Kerala, upon receiving news about the viral outbreak in China, had begun preparations. At the time Kerala’s first coronavirus patient had arrived from Wuhan, the state had already started implementing strategies that worked in the Nipah outbreak – test, trace, isolate and support. Health workers were present in the airport checking temperatures and collecting details of those returning from China. The first phase of the viral outbreak was thus contained.

Soon the virus had spread to other parts of the world. Kerala, by virtue of being a state with large population working abroad, and a tourist favourite, faced a second, and much more serious phase of the pandemic, which came from Europe and the Persian Gulf region. At the peak of the second outbreak nearly 170,000 people were under observation. By the end of April, the curve was flattened, and the state started witnessing days with zero new cases.

While Kerala was doing extremely well in containing the virus, having recorded only four deaths from Covid-19, many Keralites abroad were not in the same position. By the beginning of May, over 90 Keralites had died in various countries – the USA, UK, UAE, Kuwait and others. The government of Kerala opened a portal for Keralites abroad who wished to return. Within the first few days, half a million registered to return through the portal. Large numbers of people have since been returning from abroad and other parts of India on flights, trains and ships specially arranged by the government of India. Ever since, Kerala has been witnessing a spike in the number of cases. The current increase is considered to be the third phase of the coronavirus outbreak in Kerala. The rigorous protocol of test-trace-isolate and support continues to this day. The total number affected (at the time of writing) is 896 and total number of deaths is five. There is no evidence of community transmission to date.


Humane Response

While in other parts of India migrant workers bore the worst effects of this crisis, Kerala’s government, under the leadership of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan arranged shelter, cooked meals and entertainment facilities during the lockdown, and chartered trains for migrants to return home, once the lockdown eased. The overall economic response of the government has been noteworthy. Most importantly, free universal food rations delivered to homes of those particularly vulnerable, as well as early payments of pensions and benefits. The chief minister and Health Minister held detailed press conferences every day at 6pm touching upon a myriad of issues – including wellbeing of stray animals during the lockdown. The response, therefore, was not only scientifically precise, but also humane.


The Kerala Model of Development

It is worth mentioning here that Kerala has a long history of left-wing politics. In the 1920s and 1930s Kerala went through a period of revolutionary social and economic reform, dominated by a grassroots communist movement which mobilised, among others, landless agricultural labourers. The movement culminated in the redistribution of land from upper caste landlords to landless labourers. These revolutionary land reforms constitute the material basis of Kerala’s wellbeing. Despite its modest per capita income and shared history of colonial exploitation with the rest of India, Kerala has achieved high levels of education, health, and life expectancy (the highest in India). The public health system that became the basis of Kerala’s fight against the viral outbreaks, under the leadership of K.K. Shailaja, derives greatly from this political culture that values collective wellbeing.


A 2019 film, ‘Virus’ (available with subtitles on Netflix) is an artistic portrayal of the state’s successful battle against Nipah virus in 2018. I highly recommend it.


Josephine Varghese is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.