KK Shailaja: Kerala Health Minister’s Fight Against Coronavirus Shows Why Women Leaders Matter in Indian Politics

Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja has been widely applauded for leading the fight against Coronavirus in the State.

Kerala Health and Social Welfare Minister KK Shailaja has been in news for while – even before the deadly Coronavirus began making national headlines in India. At a time when world leaders are struggling with the dangerous pathogen, what is it that threw limelight on this 63-year-old political leader from a State with less than three percent of the country’s total population? In simple words, it’s her leadership.

But simple words don’t do justice to a leader like Shailaja. Let’s rewind a bit.

Two years ago..

The first-time minister came to power in 2016, as part of the State government formed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) under first-time Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. She had been in politics full time for only a little more than a decade then. Till 2004, this mother of two boys was a high school teacher at a village in her native Kannur district in north Kerala. She was active in politics since her college days, as a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and later as a central committee member at the Communist Part of India (Marxist) aka CPI(M).

Shailaja’s time in power, incidentally, also happens to be a period in which Kerala faced its biggest tragedies in recent history – including massive floods in two consecutive years. In fact, the first half of 2018 witnessed the outbreak of Nipah Virus in the Southern State, which took 18 lives at the time. By August in the same year, Kerala had also witnessed severe floods across the State, reporting around 500 deaths and property damage worth thousands of crores of rupees. In 2019 too, the floods took more than 120 lives in Kerala, although the damages were relatively lesser.

In all these situations, Shailaja was at the forefront, making even the critiques of Leftist government pay adulation to her patience, empathy, resilience, and attention to detail. The Nipah episode even inspired a Malayalam film, Virus (2019), with veteran actor Revathy essaying the Health Minister’s role. Her calm yet powerful presence shut down anyone who would question women’s authority in a crisis. (According to the World Health Organisation, Nipah virus presents 40 to 75 percent fatality rate, whereas it is under 10 percent for Coronavirus.)  

In the immediate aftermath of the floods, her meticulous care in planning the prevention of water-borne and vector-borne diseases was fitting for Kerala’s outstanding health record. Ensuring access to food and medicines for the underprivileged sections of society was also on the top of her priorities, as was bringing in ayurvedic and homeopathic doctors to make up for shortage of allopathic doctors. Her efforts were successful as Kerala miraculously escaped a bout of diseases which are inevitable after natural calamities. Interestingly, she notified the press as soon as one case of chicken-pox was reported after the floods, and assured that the patient was quarantined.   

And today..

Nothing is enough to fight the global outbreak of a virus which has no effective treatment. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare. This is where the Kerala Health Minister – popularly known as Shailaja teacher – stands out.

Ever since the Coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan in China towards the end of last year, she had been following up on it since Wuhan is a popular destination for students from Kerala to pursue Medicine and Engineering. In fact, the first case of Coronavirus in India was reported in January, in Kerala, when one of the students returning from Wuhan was tested positive for the virus, followed by two more Wuhan-returnees.

To Shailaja’s credit, the State was well-prepared this time, with quarantine facilities ready for those tested positive and medical aid available without hardships. Subject experts were called in, and Scientific reasoning – not superstitions or unfounded beliefs – was paramount in decision-making.

In as early as February first week, Kerala government had even declared State-wide Emergency for a week, activating preparations on war-footing basis – including cancellation of all public events, closing down educational institutions and movie theatres, and even appointing 276 more doctors (via PSC). Later, as the nation later went into lockdown, (the Social Welfare part of) Shailaja’s ministry even started serving afternoon meals for school children at their homes.  

Actions Command Respect  

Despite the temptation of limelight, Shailaja has wisely stayed away from public relation (PR) stunts. Since January 30, Shailaja Teacher (as her Twitter handle is named) has not tweeted anything but Coronavirus updates. Either Shailaja or the Chief Minister speaks to the press every day, maintaining utter transparency and ensuring that right information reaches the people.

Shailaja has openly said that she has no medical background; but since was a Science teacher, she has been reading up on Coronavirus online for months now. Besides, while maintaining accessibility to bureaucrats and the common man alike, Shailaja has been upfront about action against those who spread fake news.

As on April 1, Wednesday, the total number of Coronavirus cases in Kerala stands at 234 (and India at 1649 active cases), with 26 recoveries and two deaths reported so far. Kerala has one of the highest number of cases reported (among all the States in India) so far.

The war is far from over for Kerala and the rest of the world; but Shailaja teacher gives a sense of confidence to the people of the State, as is obvious from social media comments supporting her, many even volunteering to work with her in this fight against Coronavirus.

In Shailaja teacher, future generations will see a leader who did not hold back; a woman who put her best foot forward when her people needed her the most.  


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