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India’s left-governed Kerala state sets an example in fighting the corona pandemic

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Indian Hindu women devotees wearing masks as a precaution against a new coronavirus cook a rice dish as an offering during the annual Pongala festival at the Attukal temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala state, India, Monday, March 9, 2020. picture alliance / AP Photo

The headlines were demoralizing: the Left decimated as a political force. No future for leftist politics in India. The death of the Indian Left. When the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected for the second term in May 2019 with a resounding majority, India's Left just managed to win handful of seats, and the defeat bolstered the prevailing notion of the downfall of left-wing politics in general. Without a strong opposition, the Modi government was seen going full swing with anti-labour policies, disinvestment in various public sector enterprises, and an increase in the inflow of Foreign Direct Investment in core sectors. Or, in other words: the government pushed its capitalist models of development aggressively.

Pragya Khanna is a Project Manager at the South Asia office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in New Delhi.

Almost one year later, the world is gripped by a pandemic caused by the SARS-Cov-2 virus—and India is no exception. This should be the time when the Prime Minister presents his leadership skills, but instead he may have paved the way to India’s biggest humanitarian crisis in recent memory. At the end of March he abruptly announced a three-week curfew that, among other things, triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers. Thousands began to walk from the urban centres to their villages, often hundreds of kilometres away, as there was neither work for them in the cities nor public transport to get home.

This example alone shows how the lockdown decisions made by the central government, without citizen-centric resolutions, provided stark insights into a failed welfare state. It has exposed the government’s inability to prepare, sensitize, engage, and care for the citizens at large.

Moreover, while in other countries financial aid packages are being issued corresponding to up to 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), India’s economic stimulus package amounted to less than 1 percent of its GDP. As the latest annual data released by the government show, healthcare expenditures make up merely 1.28 percent of the GDP, which means that there are only 0.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people and only 20 healthcare workers per 100,000 people. This explains the general catastrophic state of the Indian health care system. So how should India be able to weather the corona pandemic?

The Response in Kerala

Within India's national program to fight COVID-19, various state governments have issued their own measures to tackle this virus – and some are in stark contrast to the centre. The costal state of Kerala at India’s south-western tip is one example. It is considered the last stronghold of the electoral Left, governed by a coalition of the Communist Party of India/Marxist (CPI/M) and other left parties. Kerala’s reaction can be seen as a positive example in the fight against the virus.

Kerala's investment in a strong public health system and infrastructure, unlike the inaccessible private medical sector in the rest of India, is now paying off. Effective decentralisation of local governing bodies and their adequate funding, the emphasis on revitalizing universal education through public participation, empowerment and emancipation of women to fight poverty through participation in politics and economic activities, have now become the backbone in Kerala’s fight against the pandemic.

According to the state government, Kerala already begin preparingin January. Taking into account the high rate of outmigration, many students studying in Wuhan, and previous experience from virus outbreaks like Nipah in 2018, the government developed rapid response teams in each district and the entire community was put on alert. Kerala became the first Indian state to report positive corona cases, but due to precautionary measures taken in advance, the response was quick and the necessary infrastructure was in place to slow down the spread of the virus.

Chief Minister Pinariyar Vijayan has taken the lead in the fight against the pandemic. In a newspaper interview, he stated that “the (Kerala) government will be at the vanguard”. Since the beginning, he took the reins in handling all inter-departmental coordination to keep essential services like water, food, electricity, health services, and police running through meticulous planning and communication. A key challenge of Kerala’s prevention and management model has been to allay the fears of the state’s 35 million inhabitants and engage them constructively.  This is done by the effective use of print, social and digital media by all government departments, providing daily information about the situation and giving reasons why certain measures are chosen. Long before the India-wide lockdown, the Chief Minister had announced financial support including health packages, immediate social benefits, and the creation of communal kitchens for the distribution of food and the delivery of lunches to schoolchildren.

Campaigning against Corona

The Kerala government also launched the campaign “Break the Chain” to raise awareness of physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and a no-tolerance policy for stigmatization of people who contracted the virus. Various public sector undertakings, youth groups, and mass organizations of the Left have been mobilized to sanitize public spaces. Emphasis is also being placed on safeguarding the mental health of not only those quarantined and isolated but also the medical staff involved by making plans to ease the load on healthcare personnel. The slogan “Physical Distance, Social Unity” is used to cheer and comfort the public at large.

Kerala also has a solution to the catastrophic conditions that migrant workers are currently facing in India. There is concern that the mass movement of migrant workers will bring the virus to rural areas, where the population has little access to the health system. To counteract this disaster, Kerala opened more than 4,500 refugee camps for workers. Local government bodies are in touch with the respective state governments from where the migrants originally hail. They have also prepared multi-lingual advisory resources, which the migrant workers have access to.

All these measures taken by the left government in Kerala stand in stark contrast to the actions of Narendra Modi’s ruling party. Especially the poorest people in India do not seem to be on the central government’s radar, and are now falling through cracks. Kerala on the contrary shows what inclusive socialist politics and decentralized governance can do. Even opposition parties joined hands with the Kerala government and praised the initiative. There is at least a bit of hope that in the current crisis, the Phoenix (that is to say, the Left) may just have risen from the ashes.