Kalpetta, Kerala: As the novel coronavirus epidemic hit Kerala’s society and economy, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his government announced a special economic package of Rs 20,000 crore. With a candidness currently hard to find in other parts of the country, especially at the Centre, the Kerala government has also admitted that the densely populated state may witness an ‘uncontrollable’ increase in the number of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks.
The special economic and social welfare package that Vijayan announced on March 19 includes free food grains and advance distribution of welfare pensions.
The previous day, Vijayan had chaired a top-level review meeting in Thiruvanathapuram, and said, “We are facing a situation which requires heightened alert. Things are under control at the moment but the experiences of some foreign countries are alarming and require our attention.”
He added that “there could be a situation where the spread of the infection goes out of control” and that “more people will have to be ready to be tested”.
There have already been reports that the pandemic may go out of control both in the country and in Kerala itself.
At present, more than 30,000 people are living in isolation in the state. Most of them are at home; a little more than 200 have been hospitalised for additional treatment and care. The number of people testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, has been on the rise.
Thus far 2,921 people have been tested in Kerala for COVID-19. Of them, 2,342 tests came back negative and 24 positive. On Thursday, one more person tested positive. No one has died from the disease in the state so far.
There are currently seven labs in the state that test samples to determine the presence of infection, and more than 300 samples were tested on Thursday alone. The government wants to increase its testing capacity.
The Rs 20,000 crore special package includes advance distribution of two months’ welfare pension, Rs 2,000 crore for an employment guarantee programme and Rs 100 crore for free food grains to be distributed to families in need. Another Rs 2,000 crore had been earmarked for loans through ‘Kudumbashree’, the state’s poverty eradication and women empowerment scheme.
The package also contains a list of tax relaxations, such as reduction of entertainment taxes for cinema halls, tax relief for passenger vehicles, and lowered fitness charges for autos and taxis.
Vijayan also set aside Rs 500 crore for support public healthcare and Rs 50 crore to provide meals at subsidised rates, Rs 20 per plate, via 1,000 hotels across the state.
State may need more doctors, buildings
Vijayan cautioned that the state may need more doctors and other health workers and that his government has already started the recruitment process. “We may need to utilise doctors who have retired from the service. The health department has decided to make district-wise lists of such doctors,” he said.
The outpatient departments of hospitals will now function until the evening at all government health facilities, including at the village-level primary health centres.
Health minister K.K. Shailaja has also asked all health workers, including doctors, who are on leave to immediately report to duty.
The government also plans to erect or take over new buildings, presumably to accommodate the greater number of people who will have to be quarantined or isolated. “It has been decided that different building facilities under various departments of both state and central governments will be made available,” Vijayan explained.
The impact of the pandemic is becoming increasingly visible in the state’s society and economy. The people have slowly but surely started to avoid large gatherings and travels, and shops and restaurants have fewer customers. Vijayan also admitted that tourism was the “worst hit”.
Call for collective efforts
However, the Kerala government has also tried to stay optimistic, with Vijayan himself saying “our social life should continue well.” On this count, he has asked for complete cooperation from religious and community leaders to fight the pandemic. He also reportedly discussed the issue with the leaders of all major religions in the state, and said they had responded “positively” and “constructively”.
He has requested temples to restrict the number of people who can gather at any time, and was assured their cooperation. Some mosques in the state have already announced that they will temporarily suspend congregational prayers, including on Fridays.
Finally, the government has strengthened health-checks at airports, railway stations and along inter-state borders. Highway-side hotels and inns have been equipped with more sanitation facilities while officials have been tasked with increasing awareness of maintaining personal hygiene and social distancing. Banks are also required to dispense hand-sanitiser at ATM counters.
The government has also launched a mobile app named ‘GoK Direct’: it provide information in Malayalam, English, Hindi, Bengali and Tamil languages about do’s and don’ts, as well as instructions about what to do in different circumstances.