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On March 21 I was on a flight from New York to New Delhi. India had announced that it would close its borders soon, and thousands of Indian citizens abroad had packed up and caught the first available flight back home. The journey was filled with uncertainty — what if I catch the virus on the way home? What if I already had it? What if I pass it on to others back home? Where will I stay, how will I do a quarantine? During the flight, I began to talk to the passenger next to me, Philip. Philip was returning home to Kerala. Unlike me, he had already contacted the superintendent of his district and informed him of his upcoming arrival. He had also made arrangements for a complete quarantine for 14 days, not even meeting his wife and young child before he was cleared. He had arranged to have meals delivered to his quarantine home. Nobody else I knew had been so well prepared. This perhaps is the Kerala model.
Kerala has emerged as a shining example of how to beat the coronavirus. The first state in India to have Covid positive cases (back in January), it also became the first Indian state to nearly flatten the curve. It also has among the highest recovery rates among all Indian states. This model is so evidently effective that global publications from Washington Post to The Guardian have celebrated the success. What makes these headlines more interesting is that Kerala is ruled by a Communist party. The EMS Namboodiripad government of 1957-59 was among the first elected communist governments in the world. Since then the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) and the Congress Party have alternated at the helm of the state. Kerala’s Covid success story owes much to its rich history of community based organizing and governance.
How did Kerala contain the spread of Covid? The answer lies in the unified collective effort of the state government and the community. For one, the Kerala government instituted a strict lockdown much before the Indian central government did. And secondly, Kerala successfully implemented a strategy to ‘break the chain’. This was done by identifying all contacts of Covid patients, contacting and home quarantining them, following up with them on a daily basis, and testing any contacts with symptoms. The state also encouraged self reporting, and set up drive-by testing kiosks at prime spots. Kerala battled with the Nipah virus in 2018, and the protocols and strategies established then were quickly implemented as soon as the first cases were reported.
This is clearly a labor intensive strategy, and this is where Kerala has an advantage over other states. Kerala has among the best health indicators in the country. This is because of not only years of investment by the State into health infrastructure, but also a vast and well functioning network of community level health workers under the AARDRAM and ASHA programs. These community level workers were mobilized effectively during the Covid response. The state also directed public sector industries and local self help groups to produce sanitizers, masks and gloves. Local officials, self help groups, and community organizers played a key role in disseminating information to the people about sanitary practices and precautions.
Self help groups in Kerala under the Kudumbashree program are unlike those in the rest of the country because they work in tandem with the State government. As the state went under lockdown, these self help groups were directed by the State to set up community kitchens to provide food to the poor and those under quarantine. Thousands of such community kitchens were set up, and the state makes available subsidized and nutritious meals at state canteens. The State Women and Child Department began to home deliver mid-day meals to school children even as schools were shut. The State has also expanded its food grain distribution system during the crisis to ensure the provision of food grain to all people in the State.
A major tragedy of the Indian central government’s response to Covid, the nationwide lockdown of 6 weeks, is that it left millions of migrant workers stranded away from their homes. These migrants were left with no work, no incomes, and for some, no access to food or shelter. In the course of the lockdown, millions of migrants have attempted to go back to their villages, often on foot, many perishing on the way from hunger and exhaustion. Some have called this the biggest migration on foot in India since independence. The central government has been completely ineffective in providing any kind of relief to these migrant workers. Kerala’s strategy has been successful at tackling this crisis as well — the state set up helplines for migrants in 5 languages, and assured the provision of food and shelter. This has prevented the large scale migration seen in other states.
Kerala also announced a massive economic relief package along with the lockdown. This relief package is aimed at the provision of food and essentials, pensions, expansion of health services, provision of loans through self-help groups, and employment generation programs. Broadly the package is an attempt to contain the inevitable recession through an expansionary fiscal policy.
So why was Kerala able to do this but other states in India could not? As in all other things, history matters. Kerala has a strong tradition of community engagement and organizing — this was witnessed during the 2019 Kerala floods as well, in which extraordinary community efforts helped mitigate the disaster. Decision making and implementation for key issues has been decentralized to the community level in the state, especially on crucial issues like health services. This means that the state is usually able to implement plans and strategies much better than other states. It helps that Kerala’s population is among the most literate in the country, and is also very political. The state owes much of this to its communist roots. The expansionary fiscal policy adopted by the state is also in line with the ideological positions of the CPM.
However, it would be wrong to call Kerala a communist state — the CPM government in Kerala is social-democratic at best. From its very inception, the Communist government in Kerala strove to work within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. This was essential for the co-existence of the Congress party government (and later others) at the Center and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala.
Private enterprise exist in all sectors in the state, including healthcare, though the state is home to some large workers’ cooperatives. An important contributor to the state’s GDP is remittances from abroad — Kerala sends the most migrants out of India, primarily to Gulf countries. Another important source of revenue for the state is the large number of international tourists it receives every year.
The Communist government in Kerala operates in the web of capital, and is also bound by its constraints — the state’s proposed economic relief package is contingent on the release of funds by the Central government. This release in turn is bound by the laws governing the acceptable level of fiscal deficit, which in turn is the servant of international finance capital. Ultimately Kerala’s proposed response to the Covid crisis in the longer term will be constrained by the logic of capital. Its community engagement, political consciousness, and history of welfare state governmentally allow it to weather the storm better than others.