A robust public healthcare system, early preparedness and refraining from stigmatising are the key factors behind the Kerala model of Covid-19 treatment, says Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. In an interview to The New Indian Express Chief of Bureau Anil S, Pinarayi refuted the allegations that Kerala is lagging behind in testing and said that the state's testing rate to detect one case is three times higher than the national average.
Critising the Union Government for imposing conditions while increasing the borrowing limits of state governments, Pinarayi demanded that the conditions should be withdrawn.
The central package and measures taken by the Union Government are insufficient in addressing people's hardships due to lockdown, he said.
Q: The Left government in the state has successfully completed four years in office. How do you assess the government's performance so far?
A: Four years is a short period in a state’s trajectory but the last four years were historic as far as Kerala is concerned, in terms of setting a bar as the number one State in India. 219,154 homes were built under the LIFE Mission. The Pothu Vidyabhyasa Samrakshana Yajnam has transformed our public schools into hi-tech schools, attracting more than 500,000 students.
Infrastructure worth over 3,000 crores was set up in Government Hospitals through the Aardram Mission, which aims at delivering patient-friendly quality healthcare services at the grassroot level.
Specialty and super-specialty facilities have been instituted at taluk and district-level hospitals. Haritha Keralam Mission has rejuvenated 390 kms of rivers, increased the area under agriculture and contributed massively towards a greener environment.
In under 4 years, KIIFB has taken up projects worth 54,391 crores, exceeding the goal we had set for 5 years. The power infrastructure of the state has seen unprecedented growth. The completion of Kudamkulam power line, Transgrid 2.0 project, GAIL etc. stand as testimony to this. The K-FON project will accentuate the state's broadband connectivity and help to decentralise IT infrastructure.
The industrial corridor is set to bring new investments, the completion of Petrochemical Park and Vizhinjam Port will be another landmark event in the development of the state. The Rebuild Kerala Initiative is being implemented specifically to augment the State’s capacity to face future challenges such as climate change or any other calamity.
A total of 23,409 crores were spent on welfare pensions, as opposed to the 9,270 crores spent between 2011 & 2016. Land title-deeds have been given to 1,43,000 people till date.
Q: With Covid-19 being the biggest challenge so far, how exactly did the previous experiences of battling two consecutive floods, Nipah & Ockhi come handy?
A: Each challenge is a learning opportunity to prepare for the future. It also presents new opportunities. Ockhi and the floods strengthened our emergency response systems and disaster management capabilities. Both helped immensely during the current pandemic, especially when we had to announce a lockdown and prepare for the same. Contact tracing was first resorted to during Nipah. That experience has also come in handy in dealing with COVID-19.
Q: Which are the major projects that the government plans to complete by 2021?
A: We have already announced two major interventions. Subhiksha Keralam is a comprehensive programme aimed at ensuring the food security of Kerala, which will be implemented in a year with an expenditure of 3,860 crores. Local Self Governments will take the lead in implementing this programme. Around 25,000 hectares of fallow land is to be cultivated. The project aims to increase the income of farmers and to attract youngsters and returning migrants to agriculture, by creating more employment opportunities.
There are 1.56 lakh small enterprises in the state. This is 70% of the total enterprises. 40 lakh workers are employed in this sector. An assistance of 3,434 crores for MSMEs has been announced through the Vyavasaya Bhadratha scheme.
Margin money assistance and interest concession for additional credit up to Rs. 50 lakh will be provided to existing micro, small and medium enterprises. KSIDC and KINFRA will implement one-time settlement of loan arrears. Extension of six months will be provided to these enterprises for the repayment of interest.
Three months' rent will be waived in standard design factories under the Department of Industry.
Entrepreneurs who use public facilities in industrial parks will be exempted from rent for three months. All major industrial licenses and permits will be granted within one week of application, with the condition that entrepreneurs will complete due procedures within a year.
Multi-modal Logistics Centres are sought to be established at Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Kozhikode and Kannur connecting airport, seaport, railways and roads in these cities. Once this plan materialises, the state could emerge as a major player in international trade and commerce. Logistics parks are to be set up in different parts of the state to take advantage of the opportunities in export and import. Azheekal Port is to be equipped to handle large volumes of cargo.
Value addition of agricultural products is to be encouraged and land will be leased out to industries in the sector, at the Mega Food Park, Palakkad. A Coconut Park with emphasis on value addition is to be established in North Kerala.
A star-rating system is to be introduced which will grade industries as Gold, Silver and Bronze based on the quantum of investment made and employment generated, so that the government can ascertain benefits accrued and concessions to be made.
Q: While Covid-19 has been having a destructive effect across the globe, Kerala has been setting a model. How do you explain the Kerala treatment of Covid-19?
A: Early preparedness has been the key. We conducted extensive campaigns to spread awareness about the disease. This ensured that the public took adequate precautions and adhered to the guidelines issued. Kerala also refrained from stigmatising those infected. This helped people readily seek and receive medical assistance.
This success can be attributed to the Kerala society as a whole. The wholehearted support extended by the masses, our robust public healthcare system, decentralized initiatives through local self-governments, proactive interventions by district administrations, effective cooperation and coordination between various departments in providing relief to those in distress, effective monitoring by law enforcement agencies, assistance by self-help groups and voluntary agencies helped a lot.
Q: There has however been criticism that the state has been lagging behind in testing.
A: Kerala has tested all those individuals as prescribed by ICMR. More than that, Kerala has devised a specific strategy to conduct tests. Test Positivity Rate (TPR) for COVID-19 in Kerala is only 1.7 - only 1.7 are positive in 100 tests. TPR at the national level is 5.0. Aim of any country is to have a TPR of less than 2.0 like in South Korea.
High Case Fatality Rate (CFR) and TPR are indicative of the fact that a state is only testing the sickest and is not doing enough screening tests. Kerala with a TPR of 1.7 percent and Case Fatality Rate of 0.5 percent is the best example of intelligent use of resources, based on a dynamic testing matrix, which takes into account the inherent strength of Kerala’s public health care system in contact tracing and quarantining. In a meeting with Health Secretaries in the country, Director General, ICMR had informed that we have to mainly focus on quarantining. And that is being done very effectively in Kerala.
Till date 80,091 COVID tests have been done in Kerala. This comes to around 2355 tests/million population.
Contrary to the conventional belief that number of cases increases with the number of tests, this has not happened in Kerala. To obtain 1 positive case, Kerala has conducted 71 tests, whereas at the national level to get 1 positive case only 23 tests need to be done. The effort of Kerala to find out 1 case through testing is 3 times higher than the national average.
Q: With steady increase in cases, is Kerala moving towards community spread? In such a scenario, has the state got any specific strategy to address the same?
A: When Kerala had flattened the curve at around the 100-day mark, there were only 16 active cases in the State. In the days prior to that, only one case was being reported per day. On some days, there were no new cases as well. Since then, we have had a steady inflow of returnees from abroad as well as other states. There are 626 active cases in the state now.
On May 29, of the 62 new cases, only 1 was through contact. On May 28, of the 84 new cases, 79 were imports, 5 were through contact. On May 27, out of the 40 new cases, 37 were imports and only 3 were through contact. On Tuesday, 26 May 2020, of the 67 new cases, 60 were imports and only 7 were through contact. On May 26, of the 49 new cases, 43 were imports, only 6 were through contact. On May 24, of the 53 new cases, 48 were imports, only 5 were through contract. Of the 355 cases in the last 6 days, only 27 were through contact.
If you look at the figures from 10 May to 23 May - the period in which fresh cases were reported after the curve was flattened - of the 289 new cases, 251 were imports and only 38 were through contact. Since 10 May, when more than 133,000 people returned to Kerala, we have had only 644 cases. Of these, only 65 were through contact. The overwhelming majority has been imports at 523. There is hence clearly no threat of community spread as of now.
Q: Increasing number of returning expats has been raising alarm bells in the state. How prepared is Kerala to provide them quarantine facilities?
A: We have arranged enough institutional quarantining facilities. Those with adequate facilities for home quarantining will be allowed to do so. At present, around 4 lakh people have registered from other states and around 1.5 lakh people have registered from abroad to return to Kerala.
Q: With more cases coming up, is the government planning any change in its testing and treatment strategies?
A: Testing would be increased to 3,000 tests every day. That would help in finding out whether there are more positive cases. As far as treatment is concerned, we plan to continue with the same strategy. We have enough hospitals, beds and quarantine facilities.
Q: What are the additional relaxations/restrictions planned by the government from June at the end of the fourth phase of lockdown?
A: Lockdown restrictions, relaxations and extensions are announced by the Centre during each phase. States are only make minor changes to suit the regional situation.
Q: How equipped is the state to deal with both Covid and impending floods, if required?
A: The state electricity and water departments are monitoring water-levels in various dams on a daily basis. LSGs are identifying buildings that can serve as relief camps, in case of floods. We are preparing for any eventuality.
Q: The Covid-19 and back-to-back lockdowns have taken a toll on state finances. With no revenue from beverages, lottery and taxes, the state could be highly cash-strapped in its final year. How is the government planning to address the same?
A: Till now, the total economic cost due to the lockdown for Kerala is estimated roughly at Rs. 80,000 crores and this will be reflected in all sectors in the next three months. The last two months have been a period of almost no income, while expenses have increased rapidly. Kerala requested the Centre to increase its borrowing limit. But conditions were imposed for increased borrowing. That is not fair.
Q: Do you think the Centre was able to address the financial crisis faced by state governments following lockdown?
A: Kerala has demanded the Centre that borrowing limit should be increased to five percentage. Later, other state governments too demanded the same. Now the Union Government has accepted the demand. It's a welcome step. But only 0.5 percentage can be taken now. But conditions were imposed for increased borrowing. These should be withdrawn. There are no pre-conditions for the Union Government to borrow. Similar clearance should be given to state governments too.
Q: The other day, you mentioned that the Centre failed to handle the financial scenario associated with lockdown. Can you elaborate?
A: With lockdown, the entire population has become income-less. People are facing major hardships, but there were no intervention to address the same. Pumping money into the market, making sure that people have money in hand, is what is important. The current package has failed to address this factor. Some things have been done, but these measures are insufficient. More needs to be done.
Q: The Congress-led Opposition UDF in the state has been steadily attacking the government for using Covid-19 as an image booster for the government.
A: We are doing our duty as an elected Government, with special focus on welfare, social justice and public interventions; nothing more, nothing less.
Q: During this period, the UDF raised two major allegations against the government - Sprinklr and Bev Q app.
A: As far as BevQ is concerned, the Excise Minister has already allayed all doubts. With regard to Sprinklr, I do not want to comment in detail as the entire matter is sub judice now. We believe that technology should be used in a transparent and effective manner to manage governance challenges. While doing so, companies which have a connection with Kerala, either having already invested in the State or are likely to invest need to be given preference in a transparent manner.
Sprinklr is a global company set up by a Keralite entrepreneur and had offered their product free of cost. From the very beginning the government had worked within a clear framework ensuring data privacy and security.
The entire deployment was planned to be done in a secure IT system. Accordingly, this was initially deployed in one of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) approved secure cloud infrastructure. Subsequently, this was moved to a state government-owned cloud infrastructure, even though we had to bear the cost of such cloud deployment.
Q: With many students in government schools unable to afford audio-visual aids required for online classes, how does the government plan to deal with this?
A: We are devising a mechanism that will ensure access to online classes to all students. Victors Channel will also be utilized effectively in this regard. The state Education Department will soon put out the relevant details in this regard.
Q: With no let-up in cases, when according to you, will the state come out of the Covid-19 grip? Are we planning any major investment initiatives in the long run to cope with the economic crisis?
A: WHO said that without a vaccine, the virus may be here to stay. But we are quite sure that we will be able to attract sizeable investments, especially since Kerala is emerging as a stable and safe destination, because of our effective handling of the pandemic.