Over the past few months, the only silver lining in India’s struggling response to the COVID-19 crisis has been the story of Kerala. The South Indian state’s mitigation strategy has won accolades from several quarters. Giddy comparisons have been made with European countries.
But a lot of it is simply public relations. In fact, Kerala has just been doing the bare minimum, while other Indian states have been doing a lot worse.
Why did the coverage turn out so far from reality and choose to ignore the limitations of the situation?
One piece in The Guardian – published in April and hence premature in some ways – is loaded with exaggerated praise about Kerala’s system, mixed with slightly irrational sub-nationalistic pride. It goes on to give rave reviews on the state’s high literacy rate, inflow of foreign funds and skilled workforce. No wonder the ones suffering the most are millions of unskilled workers from other states, the same as in Delhi and Mumbai. Most of these opinion pieces made the mistake of claiming that the curve had been flattened.
Social media is flooded with hero-worship of the Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, and the health minister has been termed as “Coronavirus Slayer” by party devotees and The Guardian. However, a cult remains a cult, no matter how many “neutral” meme pages run secretly by Communist Party of India (M) [CPI(M)] cadres and sympathisers promote the idea as organic.
Meanwhile, Kerala’s ministers have been constantly patting themselves on the back.
MIT’s Technology Review, along with other foreign media such as the Washington Post, chose to focus selectively on contact tracing – which the CPI(M) government did quite a decent job of – rather than objective conditions. Headlines spoke of “Communist Kerala” being a success story.
Never mind the fact that Kerala government’s overall policies being to the political right of former frontrunner in the US’ Democratic Party Presidential nomination race, Bernie Sanders, a social democrat by all yardsticks, should expose the farce of its communist tag. Global Marxists are also caught up in the flow of the narrative. People’s World, a Marxist website, did the same.
A closer look shows that the excitement around Kerala seems to be more a product of a rather authoritarian public relations effort of the CPI(M) and its social media outreach, rather than being based on facts, given that the situation is far more dire than what the echo chamber has let on.
Social welfare coverage
Handling the COVID crisis has two basic aspects – public health and economic welfare of the public. The government of Denmark is covering 90% of the salaries of all citizens, Italy is covering 80%, Canada 75%, France, Spain and Ireland cover 70% of the salary amount, and Germany covers 67%. Even the United States, notorious for its laissez faire treatment of the working class and shoddy healthcare system, has paid $1200 to each citizen twice over, and offered unemployment insurance for those laid off at median wage levels in their sector, plus another $600.
Kerala, much like the rest of the Indian states, has provided close to zero in terms of unemployment stipend. The Kerala government in fact cut one month’s salary from government employees (over five months), instead of providing hazard pay.
The Finance Minister of the state, Dr. Thomas Isaac, boasted of a Rs. 20,000 crore COVID-19 relief package. The same editorial was carried in three different publications – The Indian Express, Free Press Journal, Deccan Herald – creating an echo chamber by replication. The highlight was the disbursal of Rs. 8500 per person in direct cash transfers under social security, and Rs. 1000 to those not eligible. This was also discussed in several high-profile interviews.
Cracks in the narrative were quick to appear. The Rs 8500 payments were restricted to existing pensioners only – 5.5 million out of a total 34 million people in Kerala (16%) were eligible to receive it. The pension amount included pension arrears that had been held up since October 2019 at Rs 1200 a month till March, with an advance payment of April’s revised pension rate of Rs 1300 (some people receive up to Rs. 1500).
In short, it was only a fulfilment of the government’s existing financial obligations – and not part of a “new package”, nor a new welfare payment as claimed. The “added relief” amounts to Rs 100 extra per person early in April. About Rs 4,500 crore out of the total Rs 20,000 crore were spent on this.
Regarding the Rs 1000 payment, only Rs 100 crore was earmarked for this out of Rs 20,000 crore – and the only people eligible to receive it are those who have not been covered by social security pensions, and who belong to the Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Antyodaya category. It is a one-time payment, not recurring. Barely anybody is covered under the pensions – one has to have stayed in Kerala for many years, be elderly, or a widow who does not remarry, or be an unmarried woman above the age of 50, or have a disability, and not be residing in a poor home. These are only some of the criteria limitations.
Rs 2000 crore has been allotted to interest-free “consumption loans”, meant to be paid back. The ones eligible for the loans are those who do not have the means to do so – poor households already covered under the Kudumbasree self-help group network. In short, welfare aid to some of the poorest was converted into lending. Rs 2000 has been provided for rural employment guarantee projects for April-May, in short, forcing the neediest to work during the pandemic, rather than directly aid them during the quarantine and have them stay safe at home.
In short, the overwhelming amount of people are left out from direct financial aid, especially those that are working age and unemployed due to the pandemic, forming the bulk of the population. Food packets are their main form of relief. Those facing recent poverty due to their incomes dropping to zero during the crisis are not covered in the poverty categories in the eyes of the state.
With an exceptionally low official urban poverty line of only Rs. 965 a month (or Rs. 32 a day), a significant chunk of those facing actual poverty is left out of most schemes – and for those who will receive aid, the amounts are far too little to even cover rent. Universal aid at decent rates, not limited means-tested aid at paltry rates, should have been the solution. The Kerala government has been reluctant to address the limitations of their aid and the uphill nature of the task, choosing to advertise its achievements instead.
Meanwhile, Rs. 3,434 crore have been provided to businesses and businessmen to “restart”, rather than to cover their employees during the crisis, as a “post-COVID revival package”. These measures are nowhere close to the “world-class success” model that the Kerala government and the international media have been touting.
The state of Delhi under Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in April conducted higher testing per million than Kerala did. However, it is worth noting that the Kerala government also managed to do a decent job on this front. As of 12 May, Kerala had tested 37,000 patients out of a total of 34 million residents. The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, on the other hand tested 200,000 people out of a total of 67 million residents.
The truth that the Kerala ministers refused to admit is that states where the pandemic has taken a more serious hue are testing far more people (in absolute numbers as well as relative terms) than Kerala. Fortunately, not all doctors are partisan. On that front, the biggest merit of the Vijayan government has been accurate contract tracing in the early stages.
Kerala has historically over the past three decades always had a higher number of hospital beds per capita, and that surely helped during this crisis. It is for this reason and for the fact that Kerala had a low number of cases to begin with, that the Kerala government was able to export medical assistance to other countries (though the state government chose not to assist the rest of India).
This, of course, does not include the huge number of nurses of Kerala-origin who have been already serving in other parts of India.
Like many other Indian states, Kerala let religious congregations happen till very late in March, matching the irresponsibility of the Tablighi Jamaat and Tirupati congregations. Even Mecca was shut down far before any area in India was, including Kerala. Kerala allowed the Attukal Pongala festival to occur where over a million citizens participated for nearly ten days between 9 and 19 March.
Kerala’s much-touted “rockstar Coronavirus Slayer” Health Minister KK Shailaja herself claimed in advance that there was no risk of community transmission. This being despite the fact that Kerala was the first state in India to report COVID cases, that too way back in January.
Just like other states, Kerala for ages didn’t let migrant labourers go back home, but did feed them better. There were glowing feel-good news reports about north Indian migrant workers being provided rotis instead of rice which is the local staple.
Kerala has a far better public distribution system for food ration than other states, and one must admit that the state government was able to deliver on that count. When Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi have been squarely blamed for the plight of migrant workers, why should the Kerala government not also be held culpable?
The latest propaganda coming out of the CPI(M) is that “workers were treated so well during the lockdown that they themselves want to go back to work”. Hans Christian Andersen could not have spun a better fairy-tale. Apparently, no one wants to go back to their families.
Over 1 million (10 lakh) Indians from Kerala work in the Gulf. Not even close to 10% of them have been able to get back to the country, unlike Indians stranded in other, whiter nations. Were they brought back, it would add to a rise in COVID-19 cases, no doubt. The latest flights to Kerala in May (Kochi and Kozhikode) included positive cases.
Flights from the Gulf from 17 March onwards flew Keralites from the Gulf to Goa, Mumbai and Delhi, and the arriving COVID-19 positive cases were counted in the lists of those states, not of Kerala. So not only are most people from Kerala not brought back to the country, even the few that have been, are stuck in other states and adding to their tallies. Kerala’s record is basically statistical wizardry.
Even now, many students from Kerala are stuck in Delhi, with the Kerala government refusing to take them back. National Students Union of India (NSUI) leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Vishnu Prazad, who belongs to Kerala, confirmed this through a Facebook video on May 15.
The period when the Vijayan government claimed to have “conquered” the virus, flattened the curve and displayed zero new cases on some exceptional days, was April. Gulf returnees were mainly flown in during the months of March and May, allowing for anomalies such as there being few cases in April, to have occurred.
On 14 May, Kerala saw 23 new cases, and according to the Chief Minister, “seven of them returned from foreign countries and another seven returned from other states”. This only further the argument that April saw fewer cases because returnees were unable to return at all or on time.
If one excludes the pending and future Gulf returnee influx, Kerala had very little COVID-19 cases to begin with (only 576 total cases as of 16 May ), and hence was able to handle them. India had 17,000 cases in total by mid-April, and 85,000 as of 16 May.
The biggest success of the “Kerala model” has been the low mortality rate, with commentators and politicians literally boasting that “it is a mild infection”, that most infected people in the state survived. The truth is that they survived because most of them were under the age of 60, because they are working-age Gulf returnees and that no one can imagine elderly Keralites with Indian citizenship retiring in the Gulf.
However, being proud of a lower median age of infected patients is an error – just look at New York City (where 2000 people, half of them young, die everyday) or the United States in general – there are plenty of young people dying, far overshadowing initial theoretical mortality rate estimates. Contact tracing and timely care have really saved Kerala.
The Kerala government even lifted the lockdown (including interstate travel, barbershops, workshops, bookstores, factories and restaurants) by 15 April, forcing even the negligent central government’s Ministry of Home Affairs to object. The month of May only proved the centre correct.
Kerala’s Tourism Minister even bemoaned the state losing Rs. 15,000 crore in tourism revenue due to the crisis, which ideally, should be the least of anyone’s problems when lives are at stake. The height of the state government’s irresponsibility was reached in April.
The Kerala government also rather proudly proclaimed it would not suspend labour laws unlike other states such as UP. However, the need of the hour is to improve labour laws, pay a fair wage, with proper public health safety measures and social distancing implemented and providing hazard pay – none of which Chief Minister Vijayan seems to be interested in providing.
Further, in SEZs (Special Economic Zones), the CPI(M) has historically been perfectly fine with the flouting or exemption of labour laws in any case. Maintaining the status quo basically amounts to doing the bare minimum. It is uncertain how much applause that deserves.
The efforts of the CPI(M) and affiliated organisations such as SFI (however laudable) to feed people, should be counted as their efforts, and not those of the Kerala government – doing so does not downplay the social service.
Initial approach to pandemic
It is not as if the “populist” communists all over haven’t made their own errors. Other mass organisations of the CPI(M) initially treated COVID-19 rather naively. For example, the CPI(M) students’ wing, Students’ Federation of India (SFI) of Jadavpur University, in March, went to the 8-B Bus Terminal in Kolkata and sanitised buses.
Well-meaning as it seemed, the fact was that the buses needed to be sanitised at every bus stop, not just at origin or termination, rather than sanitisation of interior surfaces just once. Further, airborne transmission in buses was not affected, nor was social distancing implemented in the said buses. Ultimately, SFI in Jadavpur only ended up increasing the risk of community transmission by crowding one of Kolkata’s biggest bus terminals.
Better than others, but not best
It is beyond absurd to compare Kerala with other countries, many of whom are providing better financial aid to either citizens (but not direct food rations). Many of those countries have robust public healthcare systems as well, but were simply unable to control the spread early on.
In fact, India as a whole was given a chance to learn from the experiences of those countries in Europe, as well as Iran, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. What makes it more meaningless is the fact that none of those countries have a self-proclaimed “communist government” and yet the policy of the Kerala “communist” government is to the right of those countries. It isn’t just the West – South Korea and Vietnam were far more responsible and efficient.
The only country worth somewhat comparing Kerala’s COVID-19 experience is Cuba – isolated (in Kerala’s case, artificially due to returnees being kept away, suppressing the numbers as well as spread), having a decent healthcare system, a lack of overloading and hence having a capacity to deal with the pandemic.
One can only conclude that even the best performing Indian state government has been unable to do enough in terms of tackling the pandemic and the economic problems that have arisen out of it, despite the fact that other states have been even more helpless in the face of it. Further, like its counterparts in other states and parties, the Vijayan government did not take the COVID-19 threat seriously enough in the initial phases.
Closing one’s eyes to the gravity of the situation does not make the problem disappear, whether it is within state boundaries or nationally.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Saib Bilaval is a PhD research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is also a contributor to Firstpost, NewsClick and other publications.
Featured image: Healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment while caring for patients with COVID-19 infection in the Indian state of Kerala | Javed Anees, Wikimedia Commons