“This is about serving society,” she says of her two careers. “In science, I would encourage my students to look beyond their textbooks and understand the role of science in society. Politics I love because it allows me similar interaction with people, in healthcare and social justice and women’s development.”
But finally, she had to choose. “I would be in school and after 4 p.m. each day I would go to political meetings. I could not do both and be truthful to either occupation. So, I became one for politics.”
Brunswick Review spoke with Ms. Shailaja as Kerala, for the third year in a row, was handling a health disaster. In 2018, the state had seen an outbreak of the Nipah virus, which lasted just over a month and claimed 17 lives. A year later, major floods killed over 100 people and thousands were evacuated.
Soon after the COVID-19 outbreak began, Ms. Shailaja saw herself dubbed “Coronavirus Slayer” by news outlets. Since then, she and her chief minister, veteran CPI (M) leader Pinarayi Vijayan, have commanded a national audience. Kerala’s road-tested disaster protocols serve as important models for the crisis now being faced by the rest of the country.
Kerala’s Early Action
On a day toward the end of January, Ms. Shailaja saw an online item about a virus in Wuhan.
“I worried that this virus would come to Kerala because many of our students take courses in Wuhan. So, we started our precautions. From January 24 onwards, we set up a state control room [the war room]. Many special groups were created to address the potential pandemic. We knew what to do because we had been there before—with Nipah. We knew the protocols, we understood the chain of activity.
“That first student tested positive; he came into our custody, was quarantined, treated and recovered. It was a victory for Kerala.”
Attention quickly shifted from returnees from Wuhan to migrants from the Gulf, where millions of Keralites work and send money back home, providing an economic lifeline for the region. Kerala’s first-mover status was watched across India. In March, the country’s best-known broadcaster noted that Kerala’s actions were consistently ahead of those by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including initiatives on fiscal support, free rice, lockdown and community kitchens. In early April, Kerala’s curve began to flatten, while elsewhere in India it was rising. Active cases fell in the first week of April, down 30 percent from the previous week. The rate of recovery in Kasaragod district, home to half of all reported cases in Kerala, was three times faster than the national average.
Kerala’s prospective lockdown exit was unveiled in mid-April, also a first for the country. That now permits a managed resumption of activity, such as small homestead farming, crafts, retail.
At that point, the rest of India was seeing the outbreak continue to spread and cases rise, causing Prime Minister Modi to announce an extension of a national lockdown by a further two weeks.
India’s positive cases and fatalities have so far been modest compared to big-population countries such as China and the US. However, India’s chronic lack of testing equipment means the spread is probably understated. A country of 1.38 billion people, two-thirds living in rural areas (in some 638,000 villages), the rest in densely populated cities and towns, India is exceptionally vulnerable to a virus whose identity is invisible and velocity a mystery.
In announcing the lockdown extension, the Prime Minister noted that he was juggling between lives and livelihoods, but so far livelihoods have been the greater casualty. On TV, viewers regularly see migrant workers with no money, having lost jobs at building sites, factories, shops, restaurants and other hourly employment, walking from Delhi to their villages in the hinterland. They have become the human face of a crisis that is bigger, more uncertain and more unusual than any economic shock before.
First, the scope of COVID-19 is bigger than the 2008 financial crash because it creates multiple big shocks in multiple geographies.
Second, uncertainty—always the enemy of economic stability—surrounds the spread of the virus. It also surrounds the public’s continued tolerance of invasive restrictions on behavior—social distancing works in urban middle classes but is probably unenforceable in rural India.