“She is a tough taskmaster. It doesn't matter if it's midnight or if she is having any ailments, the minister is there to monitor every arrangement. In the case of novel Coronavirus prevention and control, the minister is leading from the front by convening assessment meetings daily,” said a colleague of her about Shailaja teacher. No need for suspense. And no need for unnecessary elevations like they do in mass films.
K. K. Shailaja means business.
The present Kerala health minister has gained a sort of cult following in other states and among the youth of Kerala for the way she handled the outbreak of Nipah back in 2018. That was so impressive that it was all documented in the highly acclaimed Malayalam medical thriller Virus.
The film was of high quality and has a human touch we generally don’t expect much from film industries where movie making is more of a business than an exercise of art. We even conferred upon it the title Pycker India’s Best Movie of the Week during the week of its release (3-8 June 2019) in 2019.
But Shailaja teacher (this writer would love to call her that than minister Shailaja or Kerala minister. I have come from a family of teachers and academicians - yours truly included) frowned upon the portrayal of her equivalent in the film - C K Prameela. Revathi who played the role appeared a little too worried-looking in the film (for dramatic purposes).
But as said by one of this writer’s friends (who knows first hand) Shailaja teacher doesn’t show worry let alone a frown upon her face. In fact, even the younger of the people who worked with her draw energy from her Dhoniesque personality (excuse the comparison). I could not afford to show emotions - negative especially - she said in many media interactions post the subsiding of Nipah. Compare this with the theatrical displays of other politicians.
Shailaja teacher is always prepared. She reads. Reads what’s essential. She doesn’t depend on what she hears. All she wants is facts. She likes to act than talk. And she walks the talk. She worked as a teacher in Shivapuram village. Her work in rural areas helped her know the psychology of people at the ground level. And her experience as a teacher helps her how to handle the rogue kids among the citizens.
Take, for example, there’s a village which is at the centre of the outbreak of Covid-19. The villagers were terrified and ready to flee. They did not understand how the disease was spreading. What would a minister (any other minister in our own states or elsewhere for that matter - for the most part?) do in such situations?
As narrated by one of the first hand witnesses:
Shailaja teacher rushed there with her team of doctors. There they organised a meeting in the panchayat office. She explained that there was no need to leave. The reason being: the virus could only spread through direct contact. She explained to them: “If you keep at least a metre from a coughing person, it cannot travel.”
How proactive! How much sense of relief and awareness it creates among the masses when a minister directly approaches them and practically leads the way and explains them in lucid terms what is what and what is not?
“When we explained that, they became calm – and stayed in the village without panic,” the source (read: witness) said. We have seen how the ministers, MLAs, MPs, and other high profile VIPs behaved in many areas of the country. The contrast with Shailaja teacher couldn’t be more obvious. The leaders must have direct relation with people. Not just to address them. To give them awareness.
Shailaja teacher had researched required information when she first came to know of the novel coronavirus what has now become Covid-19. It was in early January when not many people even knew it would spread in India and make even the Big Brother of the world America kneel before it.
What did you think Shailaja teacher did? She called one of her medically trained deputies. She told that person about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. She inquired if it would come to Kerala. The answer was positive (read: yes. It will come). She immediately began her preparations drawing from her experiences during the Nipah outbreak.
The 63 year old bespectacled former secondary school science teacher Shailaja held a meeting with her rapid response team. The team immediately set up a control room and instructed the medical officers in 14 districts of Kerala to do the same at their level. Decentralisation!
It was not more than a week before the first case arrived in the state (after she first read about coronavirus) via a plane from Wuhan. But Shailaja teacher prepared the state. They had already adopted the World Health Organization’s protocol of: test, trace, isolate, and support. Compare this to the central government, or for that matter any other state governments in India.
All those coming from China were stopped in the airport itself and were given counselling in an amicable manner. Their temperatures were checked. And when they’re found to be running a high fever (three among the dozen or so counselled) were isolated in a nearby hospital. Not just that. The information and the situation is communicated with their respective families by the authorities who also assured them that their people will come back to home unscathed. How thoughtful!!!
The remaining passengers were placed in home quarantine. They’re also given all the necessary information and were assured of help in case they need it. And we’re made comfortable. There’s no need to panic after all when you take the right measures. No?
In the meanwhile, information pamphlets about Covid-19 had already been printed in the local language, Malayalam. The hospitalised patients tested positive for Covid-19. But the disease had been contained. The first line of defence operation was conducted successfully.
But the virus continued to spread beyond China (because it's China - no joke!) and soon it was everywhere.
10 days later! As narrated by first hand witness:
A Malayali family returning from Venice (Italy) was evasive about its travel history. They went home without submitting to the now-standard controls. By the time medical personnel detected a case of Covid-19 and traced it back to them, their contacts were in the hundreds.
But the team set up by the minister was quite efficient. With the help of advertisements and social media, the contact tracers tracked them all within a short time. All those potential virus victims were placed in quarantine. Six among those developed Covid-19.
The second line of defence operation had been carried out successfully.
By now large numbers of overseas workers were heading home to Kerala from infected Gulf states, some of them carrying the virus as expected. Panic started to hit India. On 23 March, all flights into the state’s four international airports were stopped courtesy the advice of the central government. Two days later, India entered an unprecedented nationwide lockdown.
People arriving from the Gulf countries are taken to a quarantine centre using several public and private buses. At the height of the virus in Kerala, 1,70,000 people were quarantined. Everyone of them were placed under strict surveillance by visiting health workers teams. For those who lacked an inside bathroom facility (read: attached bathrooms) were given an improvised option with an expense provided by the government itself.
Thanks to the proactive and practical methods followed by the teams set by Shailaja teacher, that number has shrunk to 20,000 within no time. The people who were placed in no-home quarantine were provided with a meal three times a day. They’re supplied with seasonal fruits. And a newspaper. Those who wanted a book to have some quality time pass were provided with books too (as said by a secondhand hand witness). All the while, everyone was given proper information as and when required and everyone was assured of a return to normal health. The deaths were low after all.
The same sort of help is provided to the migrant workers (the numbers varied from various sources, 1.1 lakh to 2.3 lakhs - officially its 1.5 lakhs) who were stuck up in Kerala. They were provided with food and other necessities. From the government funds. A first hand witness says: most of them were fed properly – at least two meals a day (with three meals whenever possible) for six weeks. Once the special trains for the migrants (operated by the Central government) were ready, they were boarded with help of the special teams set up by the government. No panic!
Nipah prepared Shailaja teacher for Covid-19. Wise people take lessons from their own life or from the lives of those they come across seriously. A highly contagious disease for which there is no treatment or vaccine should be taken seriously. Kerala Model! It played a huge part in her way of operating. Kerala Model constitutes a decentralised public health system and investment in public education. Every village has a primary health centre and a school. There are hospitals at each level. Every administration centre in the state has 10 medical colleges.
This is true of other states in India too Shailaja teacher stresses. But we understand and know that nowhere else are people so invested in their primary health system. With widespread access to education, there is a definite understanding of health being important to the wellbeing of people.
This can be understood by how the government was able to convince all the religious heads, so close the religious centres. The Chief Minister himself, with Shailaja teacher in presence, spoke to all of them and made them understand the profundity of the danger they're facing at the moment.
Shailaja teacher doesn’t want to take the credit for all this herself nor is she ready to accept people calling her a rock star minister or a virus slayer. After all, she knows Corona threat isn’t yet over. And we have to live with it in the foreseeable future. She says (as said by a first hand witness): had the Kerala model not been in place our government’s (not my) response to Covid-19 would not have been possible.
What Shailaja teacher did? As per those who worked with her and knows her well, she upgraded the Public Health Service centres. She also created a registry of those with respiratory problems. As we all know, it is those people - with respiratory issues - certainly are the ones in fatal problem from Covid-19.
• Every district has two hospitals dedicated to Covid-19 victims.
• Each medical college set aside 500 beds for them.
• Proper preference measures were taken and order is given to the testers when the testing kits were in short supply.
• Testing, Quarantining, and hospital surveillance are of foremost importance.
We will take leave now after one final point. It’s an assurance from Shailaja teacher:
“I have Plan-A, Plan-B, Plan-C, and evening Plan-D ready. What we may face challenging is: man power for frontline warriors.”
But Shailaja teacher is capable of handling this. And hope India and the rest of the world follow her steps too.