An open letter to Mullapally Ramachandran

As you may be aware, the entire word is in the vicelike grip of a great pandemic, Covid-19. The infection has relentlessly been infecting and killing people across the world since December 2019. Kerala too has been affected, where till date, 3,876 have been infected, and 22 have died.

In fact, India’s first cases of Covid-19 were reported when three students of Kerala origin studying in China’s Wuhan, believed to be the place of the Coronavirus’ origin, returned home to Thrissur, Alappuzha and Kasaragod districts, respectively. The Kerala government led by your bête noire—the LDF declared a ‘state calamity’ warning straight away.

I don’t know if you’re aware that a viral epidemic is no stranger to the government. If you are, you will recall that it is during the stint of the very same government that another virus had held the state captive in May 2018. For some strange reason, people in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts were presented to hospitals with pneumonia and encephalitis.  Some of them died. This caught the government unawares. As of 1 June 2018, 17 people had died. All of them exhibited similar symptoms, leaving health authorities baffled and healthcare providers clueless. The dead included a nurse Lini, who had nursed one of the infected. Lini later became the mascot of this unidentified infection that had held Kerala captive back then. The strange disease was ultimately diagnosed as Nipah, a viral infection transmitted by fruit bats. Once the disease was identified, Kerala’s health ministry went into battle-mode.

While cautioning people travelling to Northern districts of Kerala to be extra cautious, it liaised with the Malaysian health Department, which had vast experience in treating and containing Nipah, which was entirely strange to Kerala. The health ministry captained by Health Minister, KK Shailaja, promulgated stringent infection control measures like tracing contacts of the infected, and quarantining them. There was nothing else to do. The seriously ill were provided supportive treatment like ventilation. No vaccine or drug was available for treatment. The Nipah viral epidemic in Kerala was successfully contained through these simple and basic measures and declared over on June 10, 2018.

The world’s attention was drawn to the successful containment of the lethal viral infection by Kerala’s health authorities. Prominent People whose dedication and determination helped to douse the viral disease were recognized by the WHO, the Kerala High Court, and Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology, Baltimore. They included the Additional Chief Secretary, Rajeev Sadanandan, which earned him the moniker ‘Nipah Rajeev’, Kerala’s Health Minister, KK Shailaja, the Kerala Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, and the then collectors of affected districts. The Kerala Government recognized yeoman roles played by 4 assistant professors,19 staff nurses,7 nursing assistants,17 cleaning staff, 4 hospital attenders,2 health inspectors,4 security staff, a plumber and 3 lab technicians by awarding them early increments.12 junior residents and 2 senior residents were awarded gold medallions of a sovereign each.

Sir, I detailed the successful containment of an absolutely strange viral infection by the LDF-led government in Kerala to bring to your kind attention that neither Kerala nor her government is stranger to viral infections of epidemical proportion. When the Corona Virus crossed Kerala’s shores in January this year, the Heath authorities had an inkling of the infectious agent’s identity, as it had already infected and killed a few in China. Moreover, the first cases diagnosed in Kerala were the three students who had returned from Wuhan. Reportedly on January 20, KK Shylaja, still in her battle fatigues from the battle against the Nipah Virus, had her antennae up as she phoned up one of her medically trained deputies to appraise him about a new virus spreading in China. ‘Will it come to us?’ she had asked him. The answer ‘definitely, madam’ had her on battle-readiness once again. She set up a war room in her office, which would later become the control room orchestrating her state’s battle against the virus- this time against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of Covid-19. The government declared a ‘state calamity warning’. Drawing from her Nipah experience, over 3000 contacts of infected individuals were quarantined, 45 in hospitals.

In February, the three positive individuals recovered from the infection. Kerala, relieved at apparently having won yet another ‘viral battle’ withdrew the state calamity warning. Malayalee Students stranded in Chinese airports were evacuated and flown into Kochi International Airport, and quarantined in Kochi Medical College. None of them however tested positive for the virus. The Kerala government once again declared ‘high alert’ from 4-8 February, and starting 8 March 2020, as more cases were reported from the state. Kerala became a pariah to her neighboring states overnight due to increasing cases. Karnataka closed her border with Kerala, which was non-porous even to ambulances carrying patients to hospitals in Karnataka. Tamil Nadu had lorries carrying supplies from Kerala sanitized with sanitizer spray at the borders. As Kerala was being treated as an untouchable, her health authorities went about bolstering her battle-readiness. Isolation wards with 40 beds each were set up in 21 major hospitals, and a helpline activated in every district. March 9 saw more than 4000 people in-home or hospital quarantine. On the same day, 215 healthcare workers were deployed across Kerala and 3,646 tele-counseling services conducted to provide psycho-social support to families of the infected. On March 10, the government ordered colleges and schools up to grade VII shut. People were discouraged from undertaking pilgrimages and from attending large gatherings like weddings, cinemas, and other social functions.

On March 15, Kerala’s Health Minister KK Shailaja inaugurated the ‘break the chain’ campaign to educate people on the importance of hygiene, public and personal. This initiative, through advertisements by film stars, saw the government install water taps and soap in public places. On March 19, the Chief Minister announced a stimulus package of Rs 20,000 crore to finance loans, free rations, community kitchens, fine-tuning of healthcare, job creation, and financial assistance to families in dire straits. At a time when half-baked and false information was being spewed by the social media, sowing fear and misinformation, the Health Minister strongly warned the people to follow directives issued by Kerala’s health department, and none else.

On March 23, the Chief Minister announced a statewide lockdown till March 31 to control viral transmission. This came a day earlier to the Prime minister announcing the first lockdown. Sir, no wonder they say, ‘what Kerala thinks today, India does tomorrow’.

When Kerala seemed to have had the viral pandemic under reasonable control, she was called upon to undertake a huge responsibility— to welcome Malayalees working abroad, especially in Persian Gulf nations, Europe, Americas, and Australasia-countries which had become viral hotspots by then. They included students who had completed their courses, those rendered penniless from layoff and pay cuts, and those whose visas had expired. They wanted to return home, apart from Malayalees from other Indian states, which had a high incidence of Covid-19. The state did not shirk that humongous responsibility of welcoming her distressed citizens to her relative safety, fully realizing that the move would add to positive cases in Kerala. By June 21, 3,00,832 had returned home. They arrived by road, air, and water. Surely but slowly, positive cases frog-leaped in Kerala. The month of May 2020 saw many days with no positive case reported. But migration from abroad and other states, had the flattened viral curve assume rising trend. June 13, 2020, had 3,451 positive cases and 22 reported casualties. Things started to look grim once again. Even then, Kerala’s viral figures looked more respectable than those of Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu-India’s viral hot-spots. Sir, I drew up this viral timeline for your information. Just in case you didn’t know, which I suspect you don’t.

It was at this crucial and grim juncture of the state’s battle against a virus on the rampage, with health providers, policemen, sanitary workers, and teachers on their toe-tips, and persistent battle-mode, that you indulged in something you truly ought not to have.

Sir, in the most inopportune time, when Kerala’s Health Minister was entirely and most earnestly involved in captaining her state’s fight against a pandemic that you sought to call her names. You alluded to her as ‘Covid Queen’ and ‘Nipah Princess’. Please Remember, this pandemic has brought USA, which we all considered ‘the most powerful nation on Earth’ to her knees. It was against this virus that the Health Minister, the heroine to every Malayalee was up in arms. In a manner most efficient. Most dedicated, and selfless. She was right there in the war room, leading from the front. That was when you dropped that bombshell. Bombshell against a person who had won international and national accolades for her role in having the pandemic from blowing over in her densely populated state.  Primetime news channels telecast what the citizens, including those in Vatakara who had voted to place you in the country’s Parliament as its member couldn’t believe. Yet, through stuttering and muttering, you managed to call your health minister names. That is exactly the reason for my angst. Sir, you let out a tirade against your state’s Health Minister, the jewel of the state you belong to-like it, or not. You alleged that she was attempting to usurp the titles, ‘Covid Queen’ and Nipah Princess’ by leading from the front.

Sir, Kerala’s citizenry, who had witnessed the minister at her best against the Nipah epidemic perfectly are aware of what catalyzed your unprovoked barbs against a well-meaning woman. Yes, the virus has yet to wave the white flag. But whatever be the reason for your shameful deed, you still have a chance to salvage yourself by offering an unconditional apology to the state’s efficient Health Minister. If you fail to do that, Malayalees, who are blessed with a reasonably good memory might choose to turn the table on you for your kneejerk loose mouth at the hustings.

Yours in great exasperation,

Dr George Jacob

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