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Dealing with Disasters—An Insight into Kerala’s Management


The entire world is currently gripped in the vices of a pandemic that threatens our livelihood and well-being. The first case of the COVID-19 virus in India was observed in the coastal state of Kerala when a medical student returning from the epicentre of the viral attack—Wuhan—tested positive for the same. In the next couple of weeks, mainly due to the number of people travelling to and from the subcontinent, the country called for a nationwide lockdown with the hopes of containing the virus.

As of 16 April 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country has risen to a staggering 12,403. The death toll stands at 414, and the number of individuals that have recovered is 1,306. The South Indian state of Kerala continues to deal with its 387 positive cases while successfully increasing the number of recoveries and keeping the number of deaths to a minimum when compared to other states and countries across the world. This is due to the intensive preparation and experience the state received in the last three years when afflicted with devastating natural calamities.

Kerala has been effective in its disaster management efforts as seen in the last three years—from the well contained Nipah virus (NiV) outbreak of 2018 to the consecutive havoc-wreaking floods of 2018 and 2019. The South Indian state has perfected its disaster management model as it continues to tackle the ongoing pandemic.

The NiV outbreak, localised in two big districts of Kerala—Kozhikode and Malappuram—was traced back to the fruit bats inhabiting the area. When the first suspected case was reported in Kozhikode on 19 May 2018, a sample taken from the patient and sent to the Manipal Institute of Virology and the National Institute of Virology, Pune confirmed the presence of the Nipah virus. Within a week, the virus had claimed the lives of ten people, pressurising the Health Department to take concrete action.

Officials placing a bat inside a container for testing during the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala. Image Credits: CBS News

Over 2000 people were quarantined and kept under observation during this time frame. The first known global case of the virus traced back to Malaysia, and as a result, Kerala requested a medical advisory from the Malaysian Health Department for their insights. The Institute of Advanced Virology was set up in response to the outbreak while a temporary ban was placed on all social gatherings and interactions. The outbreak was effectively contained and declared over on 10 June 2018, less than a month after the first suspected case. A total of nineteen NiV cases were reported in the state, including seventeen deaths. The successful efforts to contain the outbreak under the Additional Chief Secretary Rajeev Sadanandan earned praise from Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology, Baltimore.

Subsequently, the state was affected by the worst flood it faced in a century. On 8 August 2018, Kerala received around 310 mm of rainfall over 48 hours. The deluge left about 483 people dead, 140 individuals missing, and more than one million people displaced in over 3200 relief camps across the state. More than 34,732 km of roads were battered while the floods destroyed about 221 bridges, shattering the hopes of millions living in the state. A modest estimate put the cost of rebuilding at Rs 27,000 crores. The economy took a severe hit—tourism, one of the key industries, faced the most significant impact—while people were reluctant to visit the state with its depleted resources and raging disasters. Over the next couple of months, the population slowly got back on their feet.  Livelihoods were restored, transportation resumed, and rehabilitation was completed to a large extent.

Families being rescued by armed forces during the 2018 floods. Image Credits: The New York Times

The following year, however, would be with its own set of difficulties, as the floods returned to ravage the state once again. The state was better prepared this time around, and rescue operations were launched with renewed vigour. The Indian Air Force, the Army, as well as civilians and volunteers from across the state worked alongside the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority to help mitigate the effects of the disaster. The state’s fishermen had a vital role to play in the rescue operations. The fishermen who had no formal training in saving lives or disaster management took it upon themselves to rescue people, reaching remote corners where even the NDRF and Navy boats could not reach. They brought thousands to safety while also providing food and essential supplies to people stranded in their homes. After the floods, a total of 177 fishermen from Kerala’s coastal areas were inducted as a part of the Kerala Coastal Police to safeguard the coast and the people living there.

Fishermen were loading their boats onto trucks to carry them to inundated regions. Image Credits: India Times

As the state coped with the recovery of the natural disaster, news about the COVID-19 virus started to pour in. The state took precautionary measures as soon as the first reports began pouring in from Wuhan, using valuable lessons learnt from its experience of handling the NiV outbreak.

The system used to contain and stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kerala was based on the same used during the NiV outbreak. People that were found to have come in contact with those that tested positive had to undergo a fourteen-day quarantine. Daily monitoring by health staff either through phone calls or in-person took place during the length of the isolation. For those that showed symptoms, separate ambulances and isolation wards, designed explicitly for the people suffering from the virus, were made available. Individuals that fell under the radar of positive cases had their contacts traced and followed up. This resource-intensive process began in January and is expected to be followed until the pandemic subsides.

Kerala has taken a slew of measures to ensure that the pandemic does not intensify to irreversible proportions—a problem faced by countries such as Italy and the USA. When the third case of the virus was identified in Kerala, the government declared the COVID-19, then outbreak, as a state disaster. A 24 member State Response Team consisting of senior officials from various departments—epidemiology, community medicine, and food safety, among others—were drafted to work along with 18 state-level teams that controlled and coordinated surveillance, call centres, and human resource management. A Rs 20000 crore package was doled out to tide over the COVID-19 fallout, while a highly effective method to trace people, and their travel history was formulated and implemented in the state.

A passenger at a bus stop is washing his hands with the hopes of breaking the cycle of the ongoing pandemic in Kerala. Image Credits: Times of India

As of 14 April 2020, Kerala has managed to bend its curve in the opposite direction—the number of recovered cases has exceeded the number of active cases. According to the data, the number of COVID-19 recoveries stood at 198 individuals while the number of reported cases fell to 178. With the number of cases standing at 364 since the first reported case in January, the state has a surprisingly low mortality rate of 0.54%.  Kerala reporting it’s first death due to the pandemic on 28 March 2020, almost two months after the first reported case, is a true testament to the effective measures taken by the state government to prevent the spread of the virus, as admitted by several health officials as well.

Kerala has been in the process of developing its delivery of basic human resources and facilities since the late 20th century. In 1975, the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, conducted a study for the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, on the development model of Kerala. The study projected how the implementation of public distribution of food grains, public healthcare systems, government schools, and high literacy rates especially among women had helped Kerala in achieving the standards of human development comparable to countries like Malaysia or China.

Health workers across the state are managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credits: liveMint

This time tested model has been put to effective use in the state in the present times with the Chief Minister ensuring an adequate supply of food grains to every citizen of the state. Ration shops across the state distributed 15kg food grain, in a phased manner, to 81.4 lakh ration card-holders in the state, free of cost. This has been an integral move to keep Kerala hunger-free during the times of the COVID crisis. Keeping in mind the norms of social distancing, only five customers were allowed near the counter, while the others waited their turn outside.

The government of Kerala, hand in hand with its people, has taken resolute steps in creating a world for themselves in this vast, diverse country. Keeping aside all their differences, people have come together in times of need to help each other in their quest for survival. The government has also done its part by rolling out appropriate measures at the required time so that people from every stratum of society can contribute to the building of the state and its resources. The trying times that the state and the whole country is going through presently can perhaps be one more litmus test for the ‘Kerala Model’ that has been active in the state since the 1980s. States across the country can take a page out of Kerala’s book using adequately rigorous steps towards fighting calamities in a well-coordinated manner and at the same time, bolster the development of the country.

Featured image credits: Hindustan Times

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