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Community kitchens are set up at the Panchayat level to prevent the issues that could arise from hunger due to non-viability of wages, groceries, and other aides.

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IPRI # 56, 21 April 2020

COVID-19 and the Indian States
Kerala: Past Lessons and War-Footing response by the administration

  Shyam Hari P


The emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic has posed several challenges to the Kerala state government as it has to other governments elsewhere. The medical facilities in Kerala are considered amongst the best in India that includes the allopathic and ayurvedic interventions. The progress made by the state in the health sector was always cherished through the development of prospects for health tourism as an income generator. Even in the presence of relatively advanced medical facilities in comparison to most Indian states, the fear of the pandemic is significantly exerting pressure on the state government. To understand the nature and impact, the challenges can be categorised into those that are under the purview of the state government and those that involve other stakeholders. 

The COVID-19 is a disease that is caused by ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2’. The specific cure for the disease is not commercially available yet. Research centres in Kerala are contributing to the network of global researchers who are trying to identify vaccine and cure to the disease. The state government in Kerala under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is attempting a plethora of measures to handle the issues due to COVID-19. Some of the issues are directly linked to the prevention and control of the virus, and some others are due to the indirect implications. The first case of COVID-19 in Kerala (also in India) was diagnosed in a medico student from Trichur who returned from Wuhan, China, the ground zero for the global pandemic. The later cases were mostly from people who were returnees from international destinations, and their immediate contact points. Some of whom skipped the diagnosis at the airport and were responsible for infecting others, whereas, some others who walked out of hospitals.

Even as the challenge due to the absence of cure and foolproof identification remains, what is specifically bothering the government at all levels is the flexibility of medical infrastructure to contain and quarantine the disease from reaching the phase three of the virus transmission. This phase of the disease is the community spread where it becomes difficult to identify the source of the transmission of the virus. The stage showcases high fatality due to an increase in the number of cases that are beyond what can be efficiently handled by the existing medical infrastructure. Kerala has an average of one bed per thousand population in government hospitals where the national average is 0.55 bed per thousand population. The number could have been relevant any other time, but during a pandemic, these are still insufficient even as one includes the scope provided by private hospitals and possible makeshift arrangements. 

Considering the severity, in order to prevent the spread of the virus at a community level, the state government has actively followed up on the lockdown measures suggested by the central government and conducted several measures. The law enforcement and other administrative wings of the government are functioning under a war footing to control the transmission of disease and minimise its effects. News media including social media, public announcements, and specialised mobile apps are used to create awareness among the public. The Chief Minister daily briefs the media on the status of the diseases with constant requests to maintain social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel. Community kitchens are set up at the Panchayat level to prevent the issues that could arise from hunger due to non-viability of wages, groceries, and other aides. Youth are asked to become community volunteers to ensure the delivery of essentials and other services. The number of tests is increased daily and scope for rapid-response random testing is explored to implement at a larger scale to identify the spread of the disease at the earliest. The measures thus taken can be seen to have stemmed from the experiences of handling Nipah virus, and multiple natural calamities in the past few years. 

The response of the state government is further dependent upon its treasury and the support that New Delhi is likely to extend. The South-Indian state of Kerala, with 19 per cent contribution, was the largest contributor to the remittances in India. A major income of the government came through tourism, lottery sales, liquor sales, road transport services, and other taxes. The lockdown has severely impacted the income generation, and the state is running out of financial resources to mobilize services. The spin-off issues related to the curtailment of services is another area that bothers the government. For example, in the state, more people have died due to the non-availability of alcohol than the death from the disease. The increasing rate of suicide and psychological stress of lockdown are areas than constantly pressurise the straining infrastructure of the state.   

Even as the state government is putting strong efforts and taking measures to handle multiple issues, some areas that involve other stakeholders remain problematic. The immediate issues are regarding the biased nature of the relationship with the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Kerala is a consumer state where a significant number of commodities that are used in the state come from or through the neighbouring states. The increasing number of cases in Kerala especially in the border districts had created tension in the neighbouring states. The lockdown implemented by these states on the border roads has choked Kerala out of resources including essential ones. The northern districts such as Kasargod were mostly depended on the hospitals in Karnataka for medical services due to their proximity. The lockdown of border roads has been stricter on medical cases, and hence many patients with other ailments than COVID-19 have died to the absence of medical treatment. This action although challenged and escalated to the union government is still an area without resolve. As an immediate resolve, the Kerala state government has sent a team of doctors to control the situation, especially utilising a pool of doctors who have experience in serving in conflict zones.

Along with COVID-19 transmission scare, the issues with the neighbouring states may also be influenced over the political-ideological differences. The increasing number of cases in the initial days has been targeted by the opposition in Kerala against the government’s image and attempts to gain political objectives could have been responsible for the lack of coordination with other states. Although some leadership in the political leadership of the various parties are coming together to negotiate the issue considering the need of the hour to contain the virus that knows no difference in ideology or domicile.

Shyam Hari P, PhD Scholar, School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies


As of 22 April, 2020 India crossed the 20,000 mark in its total number of coronavirus affected cases with 645 deaths. The country heads to complete a month of complete lockdown and in this, while few states have been able to manage the health crisis, most are yet to recuperate. The International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) at NIAS takes a critical look at the response readiness, mitigation abilities, societal perception and role of media in the different federal states in India while combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IPRI Series on “COVID-19 and Indian States” brings out the comparative narration and the larger picture on how India is addressing the pandemic. This initiative is undertaken by the IPRI in collaboration with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). The KAS-India Office is one of the principal partners of the IPRI and the IPRI network.

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