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Kerala and KK Shailaja Show the Way!

By Shlomo Maital  

KK Shailaja, Kerala Health Minister

   On Jan. 21: The first case of the coronavirus is confirmed in the United States, in Seattle.

   On Jan. 22: Trump makes his first comments about the coronavirus, saying he is not concerned about a pandemic: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. … It’s going to be just fine.”

   Contrast this with the Health Minister of Kerala, K.K. Shailaja, a former teacher. (She is known affectionately as Shailaja Teacher). Kerala is a state in southwest India, with some 35 million people, and its population is quite highly educated; its politics are socialist and, let’s say it, Communist.

        According to a fine article in The Guardian by Laura Spinney:

     “On 20 January, KK Shailaja phoned one of her medically trained deputies. She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied. And so the health minister of the Indian state of Kerala began her preparations.     Four months later, Kerala has reported only 524 cases of Covid-19, four deaths and – according to Shailaja – no community transmission. The state has a population of about 35 million and a GDP per capita of only £2,200. By contrast, the UK (double the population, GDP per capita of £33,100) has reported more than 40,000 deaths, while the US (10 times the population, GDP per capita of £51,000) has reported more than 82,000 deaths; both countries have rampant community transmission.

       What does Shailaja Teacher and Kerala understand, that President Trump does not?

       The Guardian continues: “Three days after reading about the new virus in China, and before Kerala had its first case of Covid-19, Shailaja held the first meeting of her rapid response team. The next day, 24 January, the team set up a control room and instructed the medical officers in Kerala’s 14 districts to do the same at their level. By the time the first case arrived, on 27 January, via a plane from Wuhan, the state had already adopted the World Health Organization’s protocol of test, trace, isolate and support. As the passengers filed off the Chinese flight, they had their temperatures checked. Three who were found to be running a fever were isolated in a nearby hospital. The remaining passengers were placed in home quarantine – sent there with information pamphlets about Covid-19 that had already been printed in the local language, Malayalam. The hospitalised patients tested positive for Covid-19, but the disease had been contained. “The first part was a victory,” says Shailaja. “But the virus continued to spread beyond China and soon it was everywhere.”   In late February, encountering one of Shailaja’s surveillance teams at the airport, a Malayali family returning from Venice was evasive about its travel history and went home without submitting to the now-standard controls. By the time medical personnel detected a case of Covid-19 and traced it back to them, their contacts were in the hundreds. Contact tracers tracked them all down, with the help of advertisements and social media, and they were placed in quarantine. Six developed Covid-19.”

     Spinney observes: “ The Communist Party of India (Marxist), of which she is a member, has been prominent in Kerala’s governments since 1957, the year after her birth. (It was part of the Communist Party of India until 1964, when it broke away.) Born into a family of activists and freedom fighters – her grandmother campaigned against untouchability – she watched the so-called “Kerala model” be assembled from the ground up; when we speak, this is what she wants to talk about.”

       Trump vilifies socialism without understanding what it is, calls the Democrats ‘socialists’, and his sycophants caution against becoming “like Denmark” (a society and economy far more equitable, healthy and unified than the US).  Imagine what Trump would say about Kerala, if he knew where India was on the map or what Shailaja Teacher had done.

         How many people died, because Trump leads the US and not Communist Shailaja? How many lives could have been saved, had Trump acted weeks or even days sooner?

         And will voters rightly fix the blame on his shoulders, on November 3, in the US?

         Postscript: One of the world’s leading medical journals is The Lancet. Read The Lancet’s unprecedented Editorial, showing how Trump gutted the Center for Disease Control (CDC), politicized it, and made it unable to deal properly with the COVID-19 crisis. No-one can remember the last time when a scientific journal like the Lancet has editorialized so fiercely.

[Special thanks to Pramod Arikal, my former student, for drawing my attention to this important story].

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
May 2020
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