INTERVIEW | I am someone who was judged, criticised even before I took oath: Veena George
Veena George talks to TNIE about the Nipah outbreak, the constant comparison with her predecessor, and her transition from a media person to a politician.
Veena George has been in the firing line ever since she was chosen as the health minister in the current LDF government. She knows it is not easy to fill the shoes of someone like K K Shailaja, who made global headlines during the pandemic crisis. However, with the recent Nipah scare under control, Veena appeared quite confident as she talked to TNIE about the outbreak, the constant comparison with her predecessor, and her transition from a media person to a politician.
The state seems to have survived yet another Nipah scare. You must be feeling relieved…
(Smiles) The situation is totally under control now. We could trace all contacts of the positive cases and also test high-risk contacts of the index case. That gave us a lot of confidence. The most crucial aspect was to identify Nipah in the beginning itself, and not give the body of the second Nipah suspect immediately to the relatives. We convinced the victim’s family, kept the body in triple-layer packing, and sent his samples for testing. We got positive results in an hour and a half from the Kozhikode Medical College lab. We later sent the samples to NIC Pune the same night for confirmation. Meanwhile, we took all necessary steps before the official result was declared the next night. The super-spread occurred at a private hospital on August 29, early morning. The hospital had initially recorded the condition of the victim as pneumonia. However, we could identify the patient and started contact tracing.
We did not send the samples of the index case in the beginning. But, two days later, we confirmed that he was the index case. How did that happen?
Initially, we sent samples of the second victim, his brother-in-law and their children. We got three positive results. Finding the index case is vital. The cause of death of the first victim was registered as pneumonia. That is why his report did not appear in the communicable diseases’ surveillance records. We checked if the private hospital where he underwent treatment had collected any of his samples as part of the treatment. Fortunately, a doctor named Priyanka, who specialises in pathology, could identify a throat swab taken from the patient, and that was sent to the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, for Nipah testing.
According to a study by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), virus-carrying fruit bats are present in eight states. But why has Nipah struck only Kerala?
The study says eight or nine states, including Kerala, are prone to Nipah. One of the answers to ‘Why Kerala?’ is that the disease gets properly diagnosed here. Every unusual fever gets noticed due to the efficiency of our health system. It (outbreak) may be happening in other states, too, but they rarely get reported.
And, why Kozhikode?
Even the ICMR does not have a clear answer to ‘why Kerala?’ or ‘why Kozhikode?’. A lot of studies have been carried out in this regard since 2018. They showed the presence of the live virus in bats in 2018, 2019 and 2021. We need to find out how the spillover happens (from bats to humans). Various possibilities have been suggested, but we have not arrived at a definite conclusion. Changes in the environment and rainfall patterns are also considered as possible reasons. We are in touch with the ICMR regarding this.
Is virus testing allowed only in NIV? There was a controversy about our dependence on the Pune centre…
We can conduct tests to determine the virus here. We have two facilities under the state government, one at the Institute of Advanced Virology in Thiruvananthapuram and the other at Kozhikode Medical College Hospital. Both are biosafety level 2-3 procedures labs. Besides, we have had an NIV lab in Alappuzha under ICMR since 2010. Nipah is a biosafety level 4 pathogen. As per the protocol, only the ICMR lab is authorised to declare it.
You took charge as health minister when Covid was at its peak. Thereon, you seem to be walking along the firing line…
(Smiles) On May 20, 2021, the day I took oath, the number of Covid cases in the state was 35,000. Kerala had, by then, entered the second phase of Covid 19. It was the fast-spreading Delta wave. Daily cases touched 42,000. Our state has the highest old-age population, and we also have the largest population with lifestyle diseases. The biggest challenge was to provide vaccination to everyone… We were the first in the country to provide vaccination to palliative care patients. The third wave was from January to April 2022. It was the Omicron wave. We have a strong public health system that has evolved over many decades. The strength of the state’s health sector is the large contingent of experts, experienced doctors and frontline workers.
It’s now two and a half years since you took over as the health minister. However, you are still compared with your predecessor K K Shailaja. Does this irk you?
K K Shailaja and P K Sreemathi had led the health department efficiently. As I was faced with huge challenges from day one, I have not got enough time to be bothered by such things (smiles). There may be comparisons. My two predecessors are my motivation. P K Sreemathi brought many institutions to
the state. Shailaja ‘Teacher’ was able to effectively handle the pandemic. They have set very good examples before me. My attempt is to emulate them and perform more effectively, if possible.
What’s one quality in K K Shailaja worth emulating?
There are many qualities. Her work as a leader during the pandemic was very inspiring.
You are being constantly judged, right from the moment your name was announced as the health minister. Did replacing Shailaja affect you in any manner?
I can say with 100 per cent confidence that it has never affected me. It is the party that assigns different responsibilities. I only have the obligation to execute the responsibility effectively. I will do that for sure.
Are you aware that you are being judged?
I am someone who was judged or criticised even before I took oath. My only concern has been that my team should not be demoralised by any negativity. I genuinely believe that the health department is not about a single individual, but teamwork.
You have been subjected to some nasty personal attacks. There is also a perception that a particular media house and a media person have been deliberately targeting you...
Could be true. Some media houses or journalists have been constantly writing baseless things against me. For example, there was this journalist who continuously did baseless stories about me. When someone asked him the reason, he said that I had not paid due attention to him, despite coming from a media background (chuckles). The media house, which is constantly levelling baseless allegations against me now, had approached me several times with job offers. I had said no to them (smiles).
Any recent instances when you felt unfairly targeted?
This happened at the time of Nipah, too. The Nipah control room was handled by the most senior doctors and officials. I was personally there throughout. However, a leading newspaper wrote that temporary employees were handling the whole thing. They wanted to create an impression that the Nipah prevention process had derailed. Imagine the impact such baseless news could have had on the people living in Kozhikode.
Your office is now embroiled in a controversy following corruption allegations against a personal staff member. What is your response?
My personal secretary and staff, on my instruction, have filed complaints with the police against the allegations. The police have started an investigation.
What is the status of the investigation?
The police have collected some evidence. The person concerned was not in the office on that particular day mentioned by the complainant. There is a conspiracy behind these allegations. The truth will come out soon.
Compared with your predecessors, you are relatively junior in the party. A few among your personal staff, too, may be senior to you in the party hierarchy. Has this ever affected your performance as a minister?
No, never. Because, as I said earlier, this is a responsibility entrusted to me by the party.
Have you ever felt you do not wield enough power over your department? This question comes because your predecessor Shailaja Teacher was a CPM Central Committee member when she was the health minister.
There have been efforts to create such an impression. The party has given me enough freedom to perform to my best ability.
But, there is a public perception that you are under the shadow of your personal staff…
It is because of a preconceived notion that women won’t be able to handle important stuff, or that she’s doing it as dictated by someone else. Majority of women from all sectors have experienced this. It’s part of a perception that women cannot do anything alone. Women in politics or the media have faced this. Women journalists working in prominent media houses have told me that they were not given political and other important beats. You tell me what’s the basis for such a perception?
The question is not about being a woman. It’s about your seniority in the party machinery.
My party is the CPM – that’s my response to the question. Even a comrade in the branch committee can criticise or question another comrade in a senior party forum. That is my party.
But, at any point in time, have you felt that you were not getting the kind of backing from the party that K K Shailaja enjoyed?
It’s because of the support that I get from my party and my department that I am able to function (smiles).
P K Sreemathi was known as an institution-builder. What’s the lasting legacy that you would want to leave behind?
There are some things that this era demands from us. One is to actualise the Centre for One Health project. Another is the setting up of a Nipah research centre in Kozhikode. Then, there is the State Institute for Organ Transplantation in Kozhikode. We also plan to develop a neuro-stroke centre at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College.
Right from the DMO to the top, accessibility has been a major issue with respect to the health department…
Health is a department that has a huge workload. We rarely leave the office before 9pm. But now, we are working on measures to make it more accessible.
Is lack of access a reason for you being targeted? Even the deputy speaker had mentioned it once…
There’s no such lack of access to me. Anyone can come to my office. There is no need to wait for permission or an appointment. Patients from medical colleges and their bystanders regularly come to meet me without any recommendation letter.
You are the face of the Orthodox Christian community in the CPM. How much has the community got closer to the Left?
These are mere interpretations. When I contested elections in 2016, I had been part of the media for 16 years. It was only when I entered politics that the public started thinking about my denomination (chuckles).
The question comes because your rise in politics has been phenomenal. You became an MLA out of the blue, and was made a minister in the second term itself. One of the reasons could be that you are the representative of Orthodox community...
I have been part of the Left since my student days. Though I was not actively involved, I have long been part of Left platforms. I was elected by all sections of people of Aranmula. In 2021, my victory margin was nearly three times what I got in 2016. It shows the support that the Left and I enjoy in the constituency. I was not elected as the representative of any one section of society. It’s not correct to portray me as a representative of any particular section.
So, you mean to say you are not a representative of the Orthodox community.
I’m a representative of the general public. It’s the people of Aranmula who elected me.
Who, from the CPM, invited you to politics?
I was part of the SFI during my student days. After post-graduation, I entered the media field. In 2016, it was the district secretary who informed me about the party’s decision to field me.
Pathanamthitta used to be a Congress bastion, but now all seats are with the Left. What led to this change?
It’s because of the work done by the Left in the district. Look at the roads in the district, and the new facilities that have come up in hospitals. People in Pathanamthitta have witnessed how their district got improved under MLAs from LDF. The development in basic infrastructure and other fields have contributed a lot.
Has the state’s financial crunch slowed down the health projects?
There’s a decrease in the support that we get from the Centre. That’s not just for the health department. We recently got the Arogya Manthan award from the Centre. Kerala spends the maximum amount – more than Rs 1,600 crore – on free treatment. The Centre’s share is only Rs 138 crore, which is less than 7 percent.
Recently, IUML leader K M Shaji addressed you as ‘sadhanam (thing)’ [and later retracted] in a tirade…
I do not wish to comment about his remark. I understand that our society, including the League president, have conveyed their displeasure in this regard. No one should make such remarks or insult women. Personally, it did not affect me. But such remarks should not be made against any woman. Nothing wrong in criticisms based on facts, but these kinds of insults are a shame.
Why such targeted attacks against only you?
This is a question many ask me. As far as I am concerned, such attacks only give me more motivation to move forward (smiles).
There are reports of a cabinet reshuffle, and that you might become the first woman speaker.
(Laughs) I will take on any responsibility that the party entrusts me with.
How has your experience as a journalist helped you in your political career?
My life as a journalist has definitely helped me understand issues from multiple angles, and to also approach issues in a self-critical manner.
Do you have any friends in the Congress or the UDF?
I maintain good relations with everyone. If you are asking about close friends, I don’t have anyone.
What about close friends within the party?
There are many (laughs).