Overconfidence, low testing rate to blame for Covid-19 spike in Kerala, say experts

“Corona Slayer” and “Rock Star Health Minister” were just some of the epithets that the international media heaped on Kerala health minister K K Shailaja and her team a couple of months ago. They said the Communist-ruled state was a role model for many Western countries that were struggling with pandemic control measures in the initial stages. In tune with this, in May, the Kerala government had claimed it had flattened the coronavirus curve.

But these records are history now– statistics show things are not so rosy for God’s Own Country. The health ministry data shows it is fast becoming a Covid-19 hub. Other than the low mortality rate, all other indicators are heavily loaded against Kerala.

The state’s test positivity rate (TPR) is almost double the national average (15.6% against the national average of 8.4%) and in the last one week it added more than 50,000 active cases to its tally, the fastest viral caseload. While the rest of India is adding fresh cases at a rate of one per cent the state’s growth rate is around 3 per cent. In tests per million, the state is on the 15th spot now, statistics show.

With a high density of population (859 people per sq km) and a large number of elderly people (at least 20 per cent are above 65 years of age) the going is really tough for the state, medical experts have warned. The government’s over confidence, low testing rate and its public relation drive led to the sorry state, they said.

But the Health Minister said things weren’t that bad and there was a concerted move to blame the government and portray it in bad light. “We admit Covid-19 cases are on the rise. We expected this. But the state has got the lowest mortality rate; it is less than 0.5 per cent. Our intervention delayed the outbreak and we got enough time to prepare ourselves,” she said. When lockdown was in force, the numbers were under control but when people started coming from abroad and other states, the situation really changed,” she said.

She blamed relaxations during the Onam festivities (August) for the sudden spike. “We can’t remain in lockdown forever. People will have to go out and work, otherwise they will starve. But once rules were relaxed people took it for granted. You can’t blame the government for this,” she said adding opposition parties and others (a section of doctors and media) were on a race to find fault with the government.

She said daily cases could go up by 15,000 by next week and the government has evolved enough measures to manage the surge capacity. As Covid-19 cases mount, the health department has given special directions to overcrowded hospitals to admit only serious patients. Signs of fatigue are visible in many hospitals.

A series of agitations carried out by opposition parties last month also played a key role, the minister said. The state had witnessed protests and baton charges when the opposition activists took to streets seeking the resignation of higher education minister K T Jaleel who was interrogated in connection with the sensational gold smuggling case.

But the opposition said it was a ploy to hide the government’s failure. “Five ministers in Pinarayi Vijayan’s cabinet tested positive. They never took part in any agitation. The government can’t blame the opposition for its failure,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala adding the state was after records and honours. “We warned the government that its public relations exercise won’t last for long. The first state to report a coronavirus case in the country, its test rate is abysmally poor,” he said. (Total tests are 35,94,320).

However, CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said when the Pinarayi Vijayan government was all set for a second term, the opposition Congress and BJP have joined hands to topple the government. He said the state’s Covid-19 control measures were the best in the country that really helped it to cut down the death rate. “In neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka deaths are above 9,000-10,000 whereas in Kerala it is 1003,” he said. He said a section of the media also played a key role to “discredit the government”.

As the blame game rages, experts want the government to take immediate steps to manage surge capacity and hike tests. Surge capacity refers to the ability of the health system to maintain sudden and unexpected increase in patient volume that would otherwise severely challenge the system. “The state is in a critical stage. It has to double its tests immediately. The government will have to rope in more experts at least for now,” said Dr SS Lal, a public health expert who served the World Health Organisation for many years.

Many experts have criticised the government saying it was only heeding bureaucrats and experts were being kept away. They also said the government was not sharing vital information and data and private players were not taken into confidence. “Cases are multiplying fast and most hospitals are filled to the brim. Health authorities should re-draw their strategies to save maximum lives,” said Indian Medical Association Kerala chapter president Dr Abraham Varghese. The CM had criticised the IMA recently, when it pointed out pitfalls saying it had a “different agenda”.

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