Over the past three years, Kerala has suffered the Nipah virus outbreak, two floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The State has won worldwide acclaim for its deft handling of these catastrophes by mostly deploying domestic resources. But its troubles are not over, and Kerala needs to continue harnessing its capabilities to withstand recurring disasters.
The response of Kerala’s political leadership, its healthcare professionals, and the public to the COVID-19 crisis has been breathtaking. The State has an impressive tracking and surveillance system. It has set up testing kiosks; it has institutes that are ready for plasma trials; and it has also enacted a law on epidemic control. The Kerala government has been distributing food through community kitchens and is running the highest number of relief camps for migrant workers in the country.
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It is not only these immediate steps that explain why the State has a low death rate and a high recovery rate in India during the pandemic. The credit also goes to decades of past investments in health and education by both the public and private sector. This has produced a robust health system. This is why Kerala was able to implement the ‘break the chain’ campaign so swiftly and effectively.
In view of the high uncertainty associated with this new virus, Kerala’s leadership knows well that it is crucial to stay vigilant, as Singapore’s experience illustrates. Singapore did very well in putting a firm lid on new infections, but it has subsequently seen an explosive uptick in cases and even deaths.
Two major challenges
Two eventualities from Singapore’s experience are pertinent for Kerala. The first challenge is the plight of returning students and workers as foreign countries become inhospitable for non-nationals. Singapore saw returning travellers bring back the infection, even as it employed a sound and well-tested screening and quarantine system. Kerala handled the returning population well, starting with the first cases from Wuhan. But the stakes will be high going forward. The International Monetary Fund projects that in West Asia output will decline 3% in 2020; nearly one million Keralites work in the United Arab Emirates alone. Lakhs of people from West Asia are scheduled to return home to Kerala.
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The second challenge for Singapore is the explosive spread among foreign workers, most of whom are from South Asia. A society can be only as strong as its weakest link, as illustrated by the thousands of workers in dormitories testing positive for the virus. A good measure of income equality and inclusion are vital for the resilience of a society to calamities. Low income groups and marginalised groups deserve attention, not least in withstanding extreme events.
On income and distribution, there is a parallel between Singapore and Kerala. Singapore is a high-income economy. Despite recent progress, it has among the highest income disparities in Asia. Kerala too has a high per capita income compared to other States. But while it scores high on education and health, Kerala also ranks high in income inequality among the States.
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To respond to COVID-19, Kerala will need to go full scale in testing, and implement isolation and better hygiene practices. When the pandemic ends, it would be a mistake for activities to return to business as usual. This is a great opportunity for Kerala to redouble its focus on health, education and the environment, which will decide its trajectory of health and climate calamities.
Given its topography, fragile ecology, and high population density, Kerala is highly exposed to health and climate disasters. If the State can revive economic growth in more environmentally and socially sustainable ways, it would not only be more resilient to extreme events but also have a greater chance of using the rich human and natural endowments for the betterment of its people.
Vinod Thomas is a Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore and formerly a Senior Vice President at the World Bank