KK Shailaja: A teacher who contained Nipah outbreak, then rose to become Covid slayer

So when Kerala reported the first ever case of covid in the country, the health department in the state was well prepared.
Former Kerala Health minister KK Shailaja (Photo | EPS)
Former Kerala Health minister KK Shailaja (Photo | EPS)

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It is not for the first time that K K Shailaja is hitting national headlines. If she is now in news for declining the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award, she was in news earlier when she was hailed as the “Coronavirus Slayer” even by international media organisations like The Guardian.

While the rest of the world was yet to take serious note of the onset of a soon-to-rage pandemic that would subsequently cause the death of more than 6.5 million across the globe, a tiny state on India’s southern tip was already combat-ready to fight the virus.

There was an alert woman behind this K K Shailaja, the then Health Minister of Kerala.

(Illustration | Sourav Roy)
(Illustration | Sourav Roy)

The reports from Wuhan about the new virus which was spreading like wildfire had caught the attention of Shailaja, who had just then successfully contained the spread of the deadly Nipah virus outbreak.

The moment she read the news from China, she alerted her team to get ready.

So when Kerala reported the first ever case of covid in the country, the health department in the state was well prepared.

Shailaja put in place an effective contingency plan.

It was her foresight that led to Kerala addressing the first phase of the pandemic effectively.

Her ability to communicate with the public so as to not let panic set in, while simultaneously ensuring effective containment, garnered global attention, with a slew of global media including the BBC praising the Kerala model. She was even honoured by the United Nations for her efforts in addressing the pandemic.

A former High School Physics teacher, Shailaja entered politics through SFI and rose through the ranks in the CPM and is now a central committee member. A fourth-time MLA, she is also a central committee member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

However, it was the Nipah and covid episodes that brought out the real leader in her.

Her popularity increased manifold thereafter. In the 2021 polls, she won from the Mattannur constituency, a CPM bastion, with a margin of 60,963 votes, the largest electoral margin ever in the state assembly history.

However, the CPM denied her a cabinet berth citing the ‘single-term norm for ministers’. This was widely perceived as an attempt by the party and Pinarayi to cut her down to size, before she apparently got too big for her boots. This decision had drawn criticism from all quarters.

Many pointed out her crucial role in the Left government coming back to power for the second consecutive term — a first in the history of Kerala. Shailaja, instead, was made the Chief Whip in the Assembly and Shailaja, without any sulking, had been discharging the duty quite efficiently.

So when the party told her to decline the prestigious Magsaysay Award, Shailaja, being a true party cadre, did not have to think twice.

The party’s argument was that she should not receive an award in the name of a known anti-Communist leader, especially in her individual capacity.

However, a prominent section within the Left and the general society termed it sheer hypocrisy and a significant blunder, as a recognition on the scale of a Magsaysay award could have well been a much-needed boost for the Left movement in the country.

No wonder, the rejection of the prestigious award has kicked up quite a row.

While some insist that CPM would have gladly lapped up the recognition had it been bestowed on the CM or the Kerala government, some even see CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s jealousy towards a better performer behind the party's decision to reject the award.

There are even a few who predict that Shailaja is on her way out of the party given the jealousy quotient of the party's top brass. But party insiders pooh-pooh these allegations and insist that the CPM sees her as a trump card for winning the next Assembly elections.

The 65-year-old Kannur leader could well be Kerala CPM’s face, in the post-Pinarayi era.

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