The world had just bid a roaring goodbye to 2019 and waltzed into 2020, with plans to start afresh. Kerala and its people had their eyes set out for the new year with solid plans on their mind after fighting the epidemic Nipah in 2018 and two back-to-back floods in 2018 and 2019. 2020 was supposed to be a year full of hope. Of course they were not ready for what was about to hit them in the days to come.
There were some ominous signs emanating from China’s Hubei Province when on New Years Eve the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia which had its epicentre in Wuhan. It was later identified as a novel coronavirus.
Keralites were aware of what was brewing in China. Memories of Nipah had prepared them to be alert to fast-spreading viral infections. Just a month after the report from China, India detected its first case of coronavirus infection in a student who had returned to Kerala from Wuhan. While mild traces of panic had set in, the Kerala government was up and ready.
Under the leadership of the then Health Minister KK Shailaja, the State’s public health authorities were quick to set up a protocol to contain the new virus. The tried and tested system that they had developed to contain the Nipah outbreak was put in place and with it came strict quarantine rules, extensive surveillance and contact tracing measures. Institutional quarantine, testing, and treatment facilities were free at the outset to calm the frayed nerves of its citizens, while clear messaging on the do's and don'ts were widely publicised using all means of communications. The rules were so taut that even asymptomatic patients were taken to first-line treatment centres. These measures by the government were used to build trust among citizens, and to make them cooperative partners in the fight that lay ahead.
Quick Turn of events
A case that was reported from Pathanamthitta on March 7, 2020 was a deciding factor in the way COVID-19 took over Kerala, the first time around. Despite the robust protocols, there were a few tense situations, like when a family that had arrived from Italy, which was then a hotbed of COVID-19 cases, skipped surveillance by hiding their travel history at the airport. They had reportedly gone about visiting families and attending functions instead of following the 28-day quarantine regime. They ended up transmitting the virus to two of their family members, the first case of secondary transmission that was detected by a physician at Ranni Government Hospital in Pathanamthitta. While this behaviour earned the family the wrath of the public, they were shifted along with their elderly parents to the hospital for treatment. Meanwhile, the district administration set out to trace their movement and released a route map through which it was able to identify more than 3000 people who had come in contact with the family. The route maps would be a prominent feature in identifying contacts of people who tested positive upon arrival in the state from outside and skipped quarantine. From this point on people’s curiosity peaked, they were asked to stay alert and the public did deliver, though it took them some time to get used to curbs and restrictions of such a large scale. There were few unfortunate incidents where people under quarantine faced ostracisation from their neighbours. The government through its Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister KK Shailaja were quick to condemn such behaviour and delivered messages that allayed the fears and instilled confidence in the people’s minds, that they needed to trust each other and stand together if they were to collectively defeat the virus.
All the right moves
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