A Nipah Warrior, Kerala Health Min is Now Fighting Coronavirus
The chemistry teacher-turned-politician KK Shailaja ‘Teacher’ is no stranger to handling a health crisis.
Chemistry teacher-turned-politician KK Shailaja Teacher is no stranger to handling a health crisis, having successfully led the fight against the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 and 2019.
Now Kerala’s Health Minister, Shailaja’s mantra is ‘science over superstition’ as she sets an example for the rest of India when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
India’s first three positive cases were reported from Kerala, in a span of 48 hours in the first week of February. Two weeks later, on 14 February, the three patients walked out of isolation after a “complete recovery.”
As of 11 March, 12 more people from the state have tested positive. However, Shailaja, through regular press meets and the state’s early planning and coordination among healthcare officials, has managed to placate fears.
How Early Planning Helped the State
The Health Minister noticed news reports from China as early as January 2020, at a time when the coronavirus emergency bells had still not rung from Wuhan.
Speaking to media, Shailaja said that she started thinking about the Kerala students in Wuhan and the possibility of them returning home.
“I sat together with health secretary and discussed what to do because we knew a lot of Malayalee medical students were in Wuhan. We had the experience of Nipah, where we could not identify the first patient before he transmitted it to four family members.”KK Shailaja, Kerala Health Minister to LiveMint
Like anticipated, the first student arrived on 30 January – and by that time the state’s healthcare machinery had a plan in place.
"But we had traced her before she came here. Airport authorities were asked to inform us as soon as her plane lands. So, when she landed, we sent her directly to an isolation ward set up in a hospital in her hometown, Thrissur. Since she had interacted with her family at the airport, they were also sent to isolation,” said Shailaja to the newspaper.
What Kerala Did Differently Under Shailaja
Four days later on 3 February, the state declared an emergency. In a week’s time (by 10 February), Kerala had successfully home-quarantined 3,420 people and had kept 27 people under observation.
In the meantime, isolation wards with 40 beds were set up in 21 hospitals across the state and each district was given a helpline number.
At least a dozen people were arrested for spreading rumours related to the disease as well.
When the new cases started surfacing early in March, the government issued fresh guidelines that mandates 28 days of home quarantine for those returning from COVID-19 countries. The national level quarantine period is 14 days – Kerala is India's only state that has an extended time period for quarantine.
On 11 March, guidelines were also issued asking people to avoid mass gatherings, and educational institutions and theaters were shut down.
‘Scientific Temper Needed to Fight Coronavirus’
The 63-year-old credits her experience as a school teacher and Left activism, in realising the need for scientific temper and reasoning in fighting coronavirus.
“I strictly followed scientists and experts [rather] than those who eulogise on the imagined benefits of cow dung and cow urine,’ said Shailaja, in an interview with HuffingtonPost.
The state has also instituted 123 healthcare teams to facilitate home quarantine of the returnees and offer them counselling.
Opposition Leader Accuses Her of ‘Media Mania’ But Accolades Pour In
With accolades pouring Shailaja’s way, the Opposition leader in Kerala, Ramesh Chennithala, has questioned her approach and accused her of possessing “media mania.”
“There is no need to conduct three-four press meets in a day. The image building she does through social media should be stopped. People are anxious. There are no masks, no facilities, no doctors, these are the things to be looked into. Instead of releasing a press statement, an image building exercise is being done.”Ramesh Chennithala, Leader of Opposition
Responding to that, Teacher said that it was “sad” that such comments are made at a time when government and Opposition should stand together.
However, that has not stopped the citizens of Kerala from praising the health minister and recognising her work.
(With inputs from The News Minute, Huffington Post and LiveMint)
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