There is one woman in Kerala who is taking charge of many of the toughest health situations and emergencies and turning things around. Meet KK Shailaja, the state’s rockstar health minister. Not only is her work with Coronavirus efforts commendable, she has a history of taking crisis head on. In the year was 2018, Kerala’s Kozhikode district was gripped by an outbreak of the deadly Nipah virus in the first week of May. For those who do not understand the severity of the situation, Nipah has a case fatality rate of 40 to 75 percent according to WHO (as compared to 3 to 4 percent for coronavirus). Kerala itself witnessed 21 deaths of the 23 patients who got infected. In the following month, Kerala managed to contain the spread of Nipah, with strict actions like quarantining over 2000 people suspected of being infected in Kozhikode and the neighbouring Malappuram districts and actively tracing people who may have come in contact with infected persons.
By mid-June, Kerala was declared free of Nipah. Standing behind all the doctors, nurses, lab technicians and community health care providers like a rock was the state’s Health Minister, KK Shailaja. More than two years later, Shailaja is at the frontline again, this time battling the COVID-19 outbreak which has been declared a pandemic by WHO and claiming more than 6000 lives and infecting over 150,000 people worldwide by the time this article was being written.
63-year-old KK Shailaja, who hails from Kannur district holds a bachelor’s degree in science, and prior to joining politics full time in 2004, she used to be a high school teacher. Thus she is affectionately known as Shailaja teacher. The three-time MLA and first time minister assumed her duty as Kerala’s Health Minister in 2016.
Clearly her tryst with Nipah outbreak has armed Shailaja with knowledge and temperament that is crucial in containing the spread of a pandemic. In an interview with the HuffPost earlier this month Shailaja said, “Fighting an epidemic like corona requires scientific temper, humanism and a spirit for inquiry and reform. Superstition, credulity, emotionalism and irrationalism will derail the whole process by dispiriting and discouraging the experts and health activists who try hard to resolve the threat scientifically.”
On 15 March Kerala launched a mass campaign to encourage hand hygiene among citizens which will help “break the chain”. Shailaja began the campaign by cleaning her hands with an alcohol based sanitiser and said, “We are able to minimise the spread of the deadly virus with early surveillance and people’s support. Now we need to follow personal hygiene as a healthy habit and wash our hands and face whenever we are in public contact. By doing it, we will be able to break the chain of virus infection.”