-By Ruchira Gupta
Kerala’s Covid-19 infection death toll is one third of the all-India average. How has Kerala, a small state in the south, been able to do this? The answer lies in the existence of a people-oriented health system and the feminine and scientific approach of KK Shailaja, the Health minister of Kerala from 2016 till today, May 18, 2021.
Mother and Teacher
Popularly known as Shailaja Teacher, the minister is a mother of two schoolboys and was a Science teacher in a district school in Kannur when she took office in 2016. She knew what every mother needed and wanted, and as the State Minister, she increased the health budget and decentralized the health system. This made the public health system in the State affordable and accessible.
Over five years, she strengthened Kerala’s Primary Health Centres (PHCs). She increased operational hours, added medical staff, and ensured adequate stocks of medical supplies. She organized trainings for Panchayat (village council) presidents and medical officers to participate in the building of the local health infrastructure. By 2021, half of Kerala’s population had begun to use government medical facilities. Till 2016, only 37% people in Kerala depended on government hospitals.
As a mother, she approached her work as the State Health and Social Welfare Minister from the point of view of the family. Demonstrating a keen emotional intelligence, she dispelled the myth that compassion and humanity are shortcomings in a leader. She created a bottom-up infrastructure which put women’s and children’s needs foremost.
Recognizing that Covid-19 has had a differentiated and often disproportionate socio-economic impact on women, Shailaja also paid attention to addressing the compounded effects of the pandemic on gender-based violence, reproductive health services, childcare, etc. As a science teacher, she did not hesitate to take swift and comprehensive actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Studying global trends in a scientific manner, she anticipated the second wave and scaled up the state’s Covid-19 response to meet the challenge.
With expert advice, KK Shailaja developed a management and monitoring structure that was flat, transparent, and more democratic. It emphasized circular communication, by inviting diverse inputs, and allowed for faster and more informed decision-making, and, in turn, to more agile action and enhanced accountability. From a robust regiment of testing, contact tracing and isolation, she strengthened the medical infrastructure further with more hospital beds, medical personnel and vaccines. She even set up additional oxygen plants, which has ensured that nobody in Kerala is gasping for oxygen like the rest of the country.
KK Shailaja was able to do so because of her style of leadership that is based on empathy, listening, creative collaboration, and authentic engagement with those at the bottom of the chain: health workers. She got information on the gaps in the health system from the health workers and listened to the advice of experts to predict future trends. All this helped her plan better.
On the other hand, Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, has been unable to plan for the Covid-19 second wave, because of his failure to empathize, listen, or take advice. Not only did he not order more vaccines to prevent the second wave of Covid-19, he even gave away the existing stocks to other countries. Instead of following global health trends and taking scientific advice to plan for the second wave, he boasted at the World Economic Forum in January that India had dealt with Covid-19 “successfully.” In reality, India was ill-prepared for the devastating second wave in April; India did not have enough vaccines, hospital beds, medical personnel and the vital oxygen needed for those whose lungs were attacked by the virus.
Unlike Shailaja, Modi has no contact with women and children, and has never worked for a living, or made a monthly budget for his needs based on a government salary. His time in the RSS has trained him in a top-down style of decision-making, with no basis on empathy, consultation, or listening. It also seems to have made him suspicious of a scientific approach.
Today, it is obvious which approach is more practical and effective. I appeal to Modi to learn from Shailaja Teacher, for the sake of a billion Indians, even as she moves on to become the Chief Whip of her party in Kerala.