“Physical Distance, Social Unity”: How India’s Red State Got on Top of Coronavirus

India's Communist-run region of Kerala has received praise from the Washington Post and New York Times for its coronavirus response. Its secret? A government that puts the public interest before private profit.

“What Kerala thinks today, India must think tomorrow!” proclaimed Indian news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai during a recent segment on national television. Kerala, a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, has become a frequent topic of discussion since the coronavirus pandemic engulfed much of the world. Just last week The Washington Post ran a story headlined ‘How India’s Communist State Flattened the Curve.’

Kerala operates as a socialist democracy and its government has roots in strong working-class movements, a history which has defined the nature of its response. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and Health Minister K. K. Shylaja, both members of the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPIM), have emphasised the need for a social solidarity in response to the crisis – something which stands in sharp contrast to the Modi government’s divisive jingoism. They have been able to lean on a well-developed civil society, and effective decentralised local government organisations, and so far their approach appears to be working.

As the Washington Post noted, Kerala was the first Indian state to have a confirmed coronavirus case. But, as April arrived, its infection rates were declining by thirty percent week on week. This is no accident. In recent decades, Kerala has invested enormously in education and public healthcare – meaning the state leads India both in literacy and healthcare outcomes. This, combined with a prompt response focused on “aggressive testing, intense contact tracing, longer quarantine and building thousands of shelters for migrant workers,” was praised by the World Health Organisation as a strong bedrock for responding to the historic pandemic.

Another recent article by the New York Times described the process by which Kerala got on top of the outbreak where more developed Western states fell behind:

In Kerala, in the south, the authorities used GPS technology, CCTV footage and mobile phone records to trace the movements of one Indian family believed to be among the first infected here. They returned from Italy in late February, and within days, medical teams fanned out to all the places they had visited including banks, restaurants and churches and quickly quarantined just about everyone they had come in contact with — nearly 1,000 people.

When the favoured newspapers of the American ruling elite are praising left-wing governments, you know it’s time to pay attention. But the story in Kerala runs much deeper than just the prompt response.

Kerala’s Left History

The left movement in Kerala, like many other working-class movements, developed outside the political system, during resistance to imperial British rule. The Communist Party played a vital role in mobilising the poor and, despite having to operate in secret, was instrumental in organising a series of peasant revolts against exploitative rulers.

After the ban on Communist activity was lifted in 1942 the party was able to obtain legal status, and, after its election as one of the earliest Communist governments in the world, began implementing a series of reforms which transformed Kerala from one of the poorest states in post-colonial India to the one with the highest literacy rate, gender equality, Human Development Index, and life expectancy.

One of the most far-reaching and controversial changes enacted by the Communist Party was its programme of land reform. After almost a decade of legislative and legal battles, both with the land-holding classes and with the Congress Party-led national government, the state government passed the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act 1969.

Land was redistributed under the slogan “land for the tillers,” swiftly bringing an end to the agrarian feudal system that had held back the majority of people. A subsequent focus on education empowered the population to develop important sectors of society, including health and education. Reading rooms, village libraries, and debating groups were established in villages throughout Kerala, providing political education, albeit predominantly for men. These institutions formed an integral part of the way of life for many in Kerala’s villages.

Physical Distance, Social Unity

The Left Democratic Front, a coalition government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has set examples to the rest of India in crisis management, with swift and positive state action both during the serious flooding of the 2018 monsoon season, and in the current pandemic. The Chief Minister, who in more normal times rarely speaks to the media, has taken to addressing the people of Kerala daily, giving press conferences that have found praise for their concise presentation of the government’s approach to handling the crisis.

His words have come as much needed reassurance to the people of Kerala, with careful messaging, “physical distance, social unity,” designed to emphasise the need to ensure that nobody feels alone. Counsellors have been arranged to be a phone call away, ready to speak to people who are in isolation and those needing support in these difficult times.

The Health Ministry has learned from its experience with the 2018 Nipah virus crisis and acted quickly, with measures against Covid-19 beginning as early as January. The minister in charge, K. K. Shylaja, kickstarted work to tackle the crisis, forming committees and control rooms across the state.

Her ‘break the chain’ campaign was widely advertised, and kiosks were introduced to encourage people to use hand sanitisers and wash their hands with soap and water before entering buildings. Measures were also taken to reduce and prevent community spread by releasing anonymised route maps of infected people via both mainstream and social media outlets.

Subsequent volunteer-driven contact tracing has allowed health workers to proactively isolate anyone who might be infected, and people returning from abroad have been requested to quarantine for 28 days. The government has also used its phone app, GoK Direct, to disseminate information like route maps of infected people, helpline details, and other useful advice.

In an unprecedented move within Kerala, the government has appropriated a recently-shuttered private hospital in Kannur district, repurposing it as a dedicated Covid-19 facility, with plans to prepare more hospitals to handle the outbreak. Similarly, the government has taken over empty and unused buildings to construct coronavirus care centres, used to isolate and quarantine people known or suspected to have been infected but not yet showing symptoms.

Socialist Democracy Responds to Crisis

As rapid testing is not yet practical on a large scale, the Kerala government has instead focused on following WHO recommendations for “aggressive” testing where possible. This has meant testing not only all those with symptoms, but those who have had contact with people already infected – and doing so at a rate far greater than any other state in India.

Civil society organisations, along with ASHA workers (Accredited Social Health Activists – community health workers for rural Indian villages) are making sure that people who are infected continue to self-isolate in order to prevent community spread. The Kudumbasheree, a women’s co-operative community wing of local government, has joined with DYFI, the Democratic Youth Foundation of India, to address the hand sanitiser and face mask shortage faced in many regions, and prisoners have also been tasked with mask production.

The ease with which the means of production can be redeployed by local governing bodies has proven a structural advantage to a socialist democracy like Kerala, when compared to the difficulties faced by some Western governments. Kerala police, supervised by health officials, are also performing temperature screening at interstate and district borders, as well as at railway stations, airports, and bus stations – another pandemic management tactic that has seen little application in the West.

Key players in the implementation of government measures are the decentralised self-governing bodies of Kerala: the panchayats, municipalities and corporations. In contrast to many Western countries which have seen the erosion of community organisations and the power of local governing bodies, Kerala has built strong local bodies that have contributed in significant ways to its crisis response, such as identifying the elderly, vulnerable, and disabled to ensure they have food and essentials.

The DYFI has created a pool of volunteers who are helping these local panchayats and municipalities with food deliveries, sourced from community kitchens that have been set up by Kudumbasheree across the state. The Chief Minister has been adamant that no-one in Kerala should go hungry, a sentiment echoed by the Health Minister in parliament.

To that end, the state has pledged a 20,000 crores INR (£2.24 billion) relief package including loans and food rations. Two months’ worth of social security pension payments will be paid in advance to the elderly in early April, with the Treasury gearing itself up to ensure that the payments can be made while maintaining physical distancing, relying on co-operative networks for much of the distribution, and with volunteers stepping in to deliver the payments to those unable to leave their houses.

The informal labour sector, typically migrant workers who form a large fraction of the labour force in Kerala, have not been left behind. In an era of growing xenophobia the government has urged its people to treat these workers as guests, referring to them as athithi thozhhilalikal, meaning “guest labourers.”

Over 4,600 relief centres have been set up for the more than 100,000 migrant guest workers to stay in, alongside the 35 sites for the homeless and destitute. Educational institutions like schools and colleges have been repurposed, and people housed there are provided with essentials like food, masks, soaps, and sanitisers.

Virus awareness campaigns are being run by volunteers who can speak the guest workers’ languages. Now that the streets are empty and shops are closed, the government has even asked local governing bodies to look after stray dogs and monkeys, who in normal times are fed by locals in the streets and temples.

It remains to be seen whether the Kerala health system will be able to cope with a surge in cases, with limited laboratories and test kits. There is, however, a sense of hope that the state and the people can overcome the pandemic together, placing the immediate needs of the population ahead of simple economic indicators.