“Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed”, said American politician Bob Riley once, and it comes true for KK Shailaja, who helmed the health ministry in the State of Kerala when the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed its rage on humanity. From a humble background in Kannur, she was known as the nonchalant Physics teacher, whose eyes always gleamed with kindness. After announcing retirement from her position as a teacher in 2004, she went on a quest for wider horizons and to serve society as a political leader. It was her unassuming persona that made her seamlessly leave a strong impression in the minds of every person she passed by to be fondly called ‘teacher’.
Until KK Shailaja became the health minister on May 25, 2016, she was someone probably known within the party circle and among ardent supporters in her niche area. However, once she took charge, amid the State being shrouded in the fear of Nipah virus, floods and now the pandemic, it was as if she had taken in Malayalis under her protective wings and she rose to be a hero in the true sense of the word, defying stereotypes, and barriers. And soon, in her reassuring words substantiated by stern actions against the coronavirus pandemic, the people of Kerala found refuge.
The explicit measures that she implemented were noticed by countries across the globe bringing many recognitions to the ex-minister as well as the state at large. She was among a few of the world leaders who were honoured by the UN and was invited to speak on United Nations Public Service Day. A UK magazine named her the ‘World’s Top Thinker’ for tackling COVID-19. BBC news too applauded her for the efforts that she made to fight the pandemic.
We talk to the former Health Minister, whose term came to an end recently, as she revisits the journey and how the path ahead must continue.
Ask the ex-minister to elaborate on the experience of setting up the famous Kerala Model of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic that was created and implemented under her leadership, she says, “It was difficult because we had never encountered a similar situation before. However, immediate action concerning equipping the entire system was imperative considering the gravity of the situation. Luckily, we could start making strategies without panicking from the experience that Nipah outbreak had given. The credit undoubtedly goes to the relentless work that the health sector and police department did to effectuate the strategies that we devised, right in time, because without their adept and responsible intervention all of this wouldn’t have been possible.”
Shailaja adds that the hard work that went into creating the model was immense and that it is still being monitored and necessary changes are being made as and when required. Kerala being one of the states that has been able to control the mortality rate to a large extent during both the first wave as well as the second wave of COVID-19 is testimony to the success that these strategies have seen.
‘Teacher’ says that it was primarily because of anticipating the nature of the coronavirus and its possibility to spread rapidly that persuaded her and the team to make long term plans. “These plans helped us to delay the peak of infections during the first wave. The country-wide lockdown facilitated it. Even after the lockdown ended everything was under control due to the ‘Break The Chain’ initiative and because the public abided by the rules. People understood the importance of staying indoors, using masks and sanitisers and maintaining social distancing. Kerala also had a strong quarantine policy in place that worked in our favour. This automatically helped to contain the virus, while we could prepare our action plan for the second wave,” she says.
Despite all these efforts showing outstanding results, bestowing KK Shailaja with numerous accolades and recognitions worldwide, the force with which the second wave of COVID-19 left Kerala grappling was alarming. This time the mortality rate too was high compared to when Kerala was hit by the first wave. When asked if she was worried about the same, Shailaja says, “Worrying just takes away the ability to think and be productive. We were very sure that COVID-19 had not shown its worst face, mainly because this deadly virus that has spread across the globe cannot be eliminated in just a year. Also, as the restrictions were lessened especially in the case of inter-state travels, mingling among people increased even in the villages. This was further fueled when the elections were declared. Social gatherings were happening as part of the campaigning. People also started attending marriages and other functions. All of which culminated in a sudden rise in the number of people being tested positive in a single day. We had anticipated a second wave, but it was difficult to calculate the severity. So, the only possible solution was to equip the hospitals.”
The precision with which KK Shailaja describes each step that her team had taken to counter the second wave of COVID-19 manifests that the ex- Health minister was working with the team throughout the course. The very reason that has made Kerala, which only had enough oxygen availability for its hospitals till last year, become a surplus state while providing oxygen to the neighbouring states when they were struggling to treat COVID positive patients due to oxygen shortage. “As we already anticipated that a second wave was on the way, our focus was to come up with long term and sustainable methods that would equip the hospitals to treat as many patients coming in. We, therefore, increased the oxygen production at the Kanjikode plant. The next step was to make oxygen available to every bed in the Medical Colleges. Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur medical colleges had already completed the project before the second wave hit.”
For every hurdle that Kerala faced in the health sector for the past five years, KK Shailaja and her effectual strategies created a wall of resilience and hope that saved the people of the state from being swept away. The health ministry, under her leadership gave a facelift to the primary health centres and provided them with basic facilities, which according to her changed people’s perceptions towards approaching the public health sector. More people were persuaded to access the primary health centres. “Access to Shwas and Ashwas clinics has helped economically backward people to get treatment without delay. Our focus while devising these strategies were to ensure sustainable results. Moreover, it was taken care that every project includes guidelines to encourage a healthy lifestyle to combat lifestyle diseases,” she said.”
KK Shailaja beams with pride when she says that the foundation laid for the numerous projects by the health ministry under her leadership will change the face of Kerala’s public health sector into a corporate set up, making it a benchmark for others. Though she is not the health minister this time, Shailaja teacher has faith in the government. “There are strong strategies in place that the government will exercise, no matter who helms the role. Moreover, health is a field that needs constant and efficient upgradation and implementation to function seamlessly. Kerala has come a long way but still has many milestones to pass, which will definitely happen in the near future,” she concludes.
By Vidya Nair