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Can the Kerala model help us fight Covid-19?

  • Published at 08:27 pm March 26th, 2020
coronavirus kerala
Kerala’s handling of the crisis has been exemplary REUTERS

How an Indian state is handling the coronavirus crisis on par with Singapore and Taiwan

All this week in South Asia, amidst immense human suffering caused by nearly 2 billion people retreating in panicked flight from the coronavirus emergency, two Indian leaders stood out by radiating confidence and empathetic humanity.

The more surprising statesman is Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister of Maharashtra, who embodies personal calm, and has managed to keep his state in the same condition of being. But the standout is Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala, whose leadership easily ranks amongst the foremost feats of governance of our times.

We are used to envying the administrative competence of super-rich countries like Singapore and Taiwan (both are coping supremely well with Covid-19) but here’s an example that is home-grown in South Asia. We all have much to learn, and gain from Kerala.

In fact, that has been true for decades, because experts have long extolled the state’s remarkable record of maintaining high human development (on par with developed countries) despite remaining relatively poor. In his 1992 Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote admiringly of “the Kerala model” the rest of the world should adopt: Land reforms, women’s empowerment, universal health care and education, and rigorously democratic political awareness. To that list, we must now add disaster management.

The difference between what Vijayan has done, and almost everywhere else, is astonishing. After its first virus cases were registered in February, Kerala implemented contact tracing with route maps and patient flow charts. It quarantined people in comfort (sharing photos of meals on social media to reassure the general population) and emphasized mental health. 

Vijayan began to meet the press daily, to meticulously share all available information. He increased internet connectivity, ramped up state production of sanitizer and face masks, and began home-delivering meals. Most impressively, he decided to pump Rs 20,000 crores into the economy, to support health, rural employment guarantees, social security, and food rations (by contrast the prime minister’s package for the whole of India was only Rs 15,000 crores). 

How does all this play out on the ground? The award-winning novelist Anees Salim, who lives in the state capital, told me: “I think Kochi is handling the virus scare and the lock down with a great amount of composure. I am yet to see any panic buying. In supermarkets, where only five shoppers are allowed at a time, people wait patiently for their turn, and those who are inside the store do their shopping quickly so that others don’t have to wait for long.”

Salim said: “Only yesterday, the chief minister announced that no one living in Kerala would go hungry. I am sure in a difficult time like this his words have rekindled hope in millions. For Al Gore, the Kerala model may mean scientific planning and flawless implementation. For me, it means depthless compassion. If someone dies of starvation in Kerala, it will hit the headlines, there will be endless discussions on news channels, protests on the street, mayhem inside the assembly. Malayalis, being a rare breed, stand up and fight anything that is even remotely primitive.” 

Can that heightened political consciousness be replicated elsewhere? I asked the brilliant historian Manu Pillai, who said: “I think it can. But it cannot be done through shortcuts or quick fixes, though technology can certainly improve the pace. It took Kerala from the 1860s to build an infrastructure of schools, hospitals, dispensaries, midwife’s services. [For other places] that kind of focus and investment on public welfare will need to be developed in the long term, even if in the short term, managerial experience and strategy could be exported outside Kerala and applied to less well-formed systems.”

To learn more about the Kerala model’s roots, I wrote to veteran editor and author Tony Joseph, who responded: “The first thing that any visitor to Kerala will notice, along with the scenery: Equal respect and dignity is what every Malayali expects from everyone else, no matter what the differences in occupation, income, or anything else. [It results from] social, political, and cultural movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially those led by the communists, that released society from the stranglehold of a particularly virulent caste system and set it on a strong foundation of equal dignity of all.”

Joseph summed up: “The main difference in the way Kerala is handling it is the consistent, regular communication; complete transparency about the progress of the pandemic; sharp focus on the most vulnerable sections of the population, and substantial allotment of funds to create a safety net for them. There has not been a single day of panic buying in Kerala because of the nature of the communication from the government and, of course, the trust it has been able to build that it has mapped out and planned for all kinds of eventualities. [Thus] inclusiveness and active public participation are essential ingredients for any successful policy.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.