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Vogue Warriors: Meet Kerala’s health minister who is taking the state out of the pandemic




                                                                                                                                         BY MANJU SARA RAJAN 7 MAY 2020

After the Nipah virus, KK Shailaja is now leading the way in the coronavirus battle with a focus on public healthcare.

It is lunchtime at the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city. The state Health, Social Justice and Woman and Child Development Minister KK Shailaja has taken out a bit of time for me from an exceptionally busy day during what is inarguably the most challenging period of her career. We are discussing the way her department has handled the coronavirus outbreak, and the reasons why Kerala appears to be better in control of it than many other places. Given her early career as an educator, the minister goes by the popular epithet Shailaja Teacher. The 63-year-old’s systematic approach and cohesive leadership together with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan proved successful in managing the Nipah viral outbreak of 2018 and is once again, navigating Kerala through the current pandemic.

Flatten the curve

For weeks now there’s been talk about the ‘Kerala model’ of dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, and how the state has managed to have India’s lowest mortality rate for this infection. On Sunday May 3, The News Minute reported that in an online media engagement Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, head of the Indian Council for Medical Research NIV, Pune, said, “Kerala is offering one of the best containment strategies and it is unparalleled. So we will continue to refer to the Kerala model as far as testing and containment strategies are concerned.” 

So, how does a state with limited revenue end up being able to effectively manage a pandemic of such magnitude? Practice helps. Kerala has a long experience with infectious tropical diseases, like Chikungunya, H1N1, and more recently Nipah. Though the latter was then an unheard-of viral strain that jumped species to humans, the healthcare system was able to deal with the outbreak and contained its death toll to the districts where the outbreak began. “I think what worked for us was our systematic approach, communication with the public, and teamwork,” she says. 

Back in action

As she was then, the health minister is back in the limelight now as commandant of the coronavirus battle. Shailaja Teacher says she read about the virus in China and knew they should prepare. “Wuhan University had students from Kerala, and we knew that if the students came back, we’d have to be careful. We formed a Rapid Response Team.” 

On January 24, the government opened a control room to deal with the situation, made plans to isolate people, including home quarantine, and looked at the existing provisions of equipment including N95 masks, and PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment). On January 30, India registered its first Coronavirus infection in Kerala; it was a student who’d returned home from China.

As of May 4, 462 people have recovered from the infection in Kerala, and there have been just three deaths. Even the oldest patients have recovered—a couple, aged 88 and 93. “When their tests came back positive, they were moved to a medical college because they were very vulnerable,” she shares. “In fact, we had special nurses and the best ICU set aside for them. And so, we brought them back to life,” says Shailaja Teacher.

Public, private, primary

Kerala has long been focused on public health, education and social upliftment. Over the last few years, and since Shailaja Teacher got the health portfolio, there’s been renewed attention to the state’s public healthcare institutions. “We had a three-point agenda: government hospitals should be patient-friendly, high-tech, and out-of-pocket expenditure must reduce. Primary healthcare units are very important, especially in rural areas, they now have testing labs and are able to catch early signs of different diseases. Medical college hospitals have new equipment, and good infrastructure. Our focus definitely strengthened the system,” she says. After the experience with Nipah, the government implemented regular training for medical staff, who also underwent mock drills as preparation for an infectious outbreak.

Shailaja Teacher has often spoken of the healthcare system as a team. “We’ve tried to create a feeling of ‘We’,” she says. One of the ways in which they do that is a daily video conference with different frontline staff of the healthcare community across 14 districts. “Each day’s video conference is dedicated to groups of people doing different kinds of work, from district medical officers, nurses, ASHA workers. It gives us the opportunity to talk to people and hear them out. Keeping in touch with those working at the grassroots level is extremely important, we try to maintain that at all costs. When the minister, or a health secretary directly wants to understand their ground reality, it makes a huge difference, especially to keep morale up.” This style of functioning is also a reflection of Shailaja Teacher’s personal way of dealing with even a broad crisis. One of the students, who tested positive for COVID-19 after landing from China, has stated in interviews that the minister called her to reassure and wish her a speedy recovery.

Morale is especially important because there’s little knowing how things will pan out. Shailaja Teacher is cautious: “It will take time to get back to normal life. It is a truth that people must accept now. This virus is not like others. Many people test positive then test negative within a few days, but others take upward of 30 days to test negative. It sometimes takes five or six tests before it comes back negative. So that means this virus remains in the body for a while, and there’s a possibility of a transfer. In Kerala, we have it under control but if we get over-confident then we may have a second wave.”

Day to Day

When I spoke to Shailaja Teacher, she had another 9 or 10 hours of meetings, files, discussions, and even a press conference ahead of her. Her husband, two grown-up sons and their families, check in on her just before midnight via phone calls. 

Her eldest lives in Dubai and recently became the second member of the family to deal directly with the pandemic. An electrical engineer, he was the project manager of a hospital construction project in Dubai. When the coronavirus infection broke out in the city, the government declared the hospital he was working on a COVID hospital. His team still works on the project and in case of maintenance and engineering works, he has to go into what is considered a high-risk environment. “I tell him to be careful and he tells me I should be careful. We keep warning one another,” she says.

Vogue Warriors shines the spotlight on the women at the medical frontlines and essential services—doctors, nurses, scientists, innovators—alongside behind-the-scene heroes working tirelessly to help us through the ongoing pandemic.

Source : https://www.vogue.in/culture-and-living/content/vogue-warriors-kk-shailaja-kerala-health-minister-covid-19-response


         WHEN WILL THIS STOP ? 

                                                  WHEN ENOUGH PEOPLE CARE !!


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Committed women and men from diverse

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organizers and activists from over 22

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implement programs to improve women’s

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