“Break the Chain”: Exploring the Kerala Model of Pandemic Response

By Silpa Satheesh

Kerala, a south Indian state with a unique model of social development, history of progressive social movements and public action, receives accolades for its proactive and compassionate response to the fast-spreading pandemic. The nature of state response in Kerala assumes greater significance when situated against the U.S model guided by the logic of a capitalist, for-profit healthcare system. This article is an attempt to highlight some important facets of the Kerala model of pandemic response. 

Kerala has occupied a distinguished place in the development literature (Drèze and Sen 1993; Franke and Chasin 1989; Heller et al. 2007) by achieving high social development indicators with limited economic growth. The focus on people’s well-being over capitalist accumulation is replicated in Kerala’s response to the pandemic. As the number of Covid-19 patients in the U.S reaches as high as one million, Kerala managed to bring down the number of patients to 34 with only four reported deaths. The success of Kerala reaffirms the importance of participatory democracy, progressive social movements, and, most importantly, the need for a system of socialized provision when it comes to healthcare and other necessities. Perhaps, Kerala is one of the many examples where the state urges people to practice social distancing without compromising on social solidarity. 

Break the Chain: A Campaign to Stop the Pandemic

 “Break the Chain” has been the slogan for the state’s campaign for spreading awareness on social distancing. The slogan is apt considering the long history of working-class movements in the state fighting to break the shackles of capitalist exploitation and the current communist government. Operationalized through a decentralized model of health care delivery, the state meticulously implements contact tracing and publishes the route-maps in all mainstream newspapers and state social media handles. Crowd-sourced through public health workers, local self-governments, and community volunteers, this model enables the state to trace back, identify and quarantine all individuals who might have potentially come in contact with Covid-19 positive cases. 

More importantly, the ways in which the local state and political leadership frame their response to the pandemic is distinctly different from the U.S model in terms of recognizing the responsibility of the state, in demonstrating leadership and in offering solidarity to the people in this troubled period. Interestingly, economy or forgone earnings never emerges as a priority in any of the media conferences or statements issued by the state government. Instead, the state frames the response in terms of compassion, collective responsibility, and solidarity. 

A model built on Scientific Temper, Solidarity and Socialized Provision

The interventions spearheaded by the Department of Health led by a woman minister (K.K. Shailaja) are grounded in science and are guided by experts while devising strategies for pandemic response. And this scientific temper is a reflection of the long legacy of progressive social actions and movements in the state, including study-classes, teach-ins, and community outreach programs such as the People’s Science Campaign (KSSP). 

Despite being one of the smaller Indian states with limited economic resources, Kerala is offering free testing and healthcare to not just Covid-19 patients within the state, but also have set-up free quarantine homes and facilities for expats repatriated from other countries. Kerala’s response to the pandemic stands out in bridging healthcare with the distribution of other essential services.  Apart from offering free treatment and care to Covid-19 patients, the state ensures the socialized provision of food supplies through the Public Distribution System (PDS) and other essential commodities, including medicines for people who are currently co-operating to the nation-wide lockdown. The relief efforts also include monthly financial support provided to the socially vulnerable and marginalized sections of society. 

Aside from this, the state has set-up community kitchens to ensure that hunger is eliminated as people self-quarantine and comply with lockdown measures.  More so, the community-kitchens are illustrative of the equity and social justice orientations of Kerala’s response. The free supply of food and provision demonstrates how the response to this pandemic can address the disproportionate vulnerability of poor and marginalized sections. Additionally, it reiterates the importance of formulating responses by taking social and economic impacts into consideration. 

And because of these reasons, Kerala stands in stark contrast to the U.S. response, characterized by misinformation, dismissal of scientific facts, lack of empathy, and a complete disregard for the poor and the most vulnerable communities. Perhaps, the pandemic demonstrates how the size of the economy does not have a lot to do with the efficiency and humanity of state response. It is also indicative of the limitations of the capitalist system and logic in addressing crises. The success of the Kerala model forces us to relook the priorities underlying our political, economic systems. An economic system valuing profits more than people is unlikely to make interventions in favor of people. 

The Pandemic as a Collective Issue

The long army of community volunteers assisting the health experts and government institutions in fighting the pandemic reiterates the importance of community and social solidarity. As opposed to a model where the individual is held responsible and liable for their recovery and survival, Kerala conceives the pandemic as a collective issue that requires collective solutions. The conception of the pandemic as a collective issue proved crucial in identifying solutions rooted in collective responsibility. 

The focus on community and solidarity stands against the model of individualism underlying the U.S response. The scenario in the U.S is illustrative of the worst possible manifestations of the laissez-faire ideas such as freedom, individualism, and competition. The reports surrounding the hoarding of sanitizers or fighting for tissue paper should be located within the larger frame of the capitalist economic system grounded in individualism and competition.  There are protests across the U.S demanding an immediate reopening of so that people can exercise their “freedom” when the fatalities reach as high as 75,000. Early evidence confirming the increased vulnerability of racial and ethnic minorities to the pandemic demonstrates how the healthcare disparities manifest the context of this pandemic. 

The crisis is cataclysmic; however, it also offers an opportunity to break away from ruthless capitalism. Progressive social movements and collective action can play a huge role in steering shifting the focus away from profits and centering back on people. 

Silpa Satheesh is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida.

References

Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen. 1993. Hunger and Public Action. Oxford University Press: Delhi.

Franke, Richard and Chasin Barbara.1989. “Kerala: Development Through Radical Reform.” The Institute for Food and Development Policy, Report 6, San Francisco.

Heller, Patrick, K. N. Harilal, and Shubham Chaudhuri. 2007. “Building Local Democracy: Evaluating the Impact of Decentralization in Kerala, India.” World Development 35(4): 626-648.

Masih, Niha. 2020. “Aggressive testing, contact tracing, cooked meals: How the Indian state of Kerala flattened its coronavirus curve.” The Washington Post. (April 13) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/aggressive-testing-contact-tracing-cooked-meals-how-the-indian-state-of-kerala-flattened-its-coronavirus-curve/2020/04/10/3352e470-783e-11ea-a311-adb1344719a9_story.html