In a country where women rarely occupy high-profile public offices as much as the sea of men in white shirts, this former high school chemistry teacher and a first-time state health minister has won many hearts for being extremely approachable and caring.
Kerala has managed to arrest the spread of the global epidemic in India to no more than three people so far and has withdrawn the “state calamity" status issued over the virus, the latest sign of the state winning the fight against the global epidemic. The state managed to achieve this feat by pressing to field some 40,000 workers from its vaunted public health system, nearly 200 of them just to monitor the mental health of some 2800 people who are home-quarantined or isolated in hospitals.
Globally, since it was first identified in China’s Wuhan, the virus continues to be tricky one to stop. The World Health Organization has declared it a global public health emergency. There are now 31,377 confirmed cases in 27 countries while the death toll has touched 638. It has no effective countermeasures or vaccine.
But after closing the book on the deadly Nipah virus last year without a single death, Shailaja has now become central to answer the question: how is that Kerala always manages to overcome novel, rare and dangerous viruses time and again?
Perhaps the answer lies in her not getting enough sleep. By the time her daily meetings are over, it is almost 11pm. After, a female health official from Kannur district (her hometown) called. She is a shoulder to cry on for the official, also a friend, a source for solace and strength. “Some want to inform me directly about the status of health in their district and ask for guidance. If talking to me gives them any peace, I’ll take their calls no matter how late," said Shailaja when we met.
Later, her husband and her children called. Quickly, she received calls from some prominent people, who wanted to take a dipcheck on the virus situation in the state. Then some of her natives called, friends and villagers she grew up with called.
Somehow, it seems, even ordinary people have an impression that she will be approachable even after 12 am. "Teacher," screamed a housewife on a call, sounding worried. “There are lots of civet cats on the top of my house. Will it cause corona? It's pissing in my room. Please do something." She smiled, politely telling her to contact the panchayat president first. But then, she anyway gave a call to another official in the village to take a look at it.
“During Nipah, I only had to deal with bats" laughs Shailja, recalling the worry over bats in Kerala during Nipah after it was found that the bats were acting as carriers of the virus.
“I will take as many phone calls as I can. See, a lot of them would be needless, but they are calling in distress. If there is one serious call amongst them, I don't want to miss it."
Apart from health, she covers departments that essentially matters to all Keralites one way or another— social justice, disabled and old age people, women empowerment and transgender welfare. Invariably, her home desk has some of the largest trays of files among the state ministers. She reads essential official files that need her immediate oversight, and then goes to sleep, around 2 am, only to be ready to meet visitors by 7.30 am the next morning.
With expats from Kerala across the globe, her nearly 20-member team constantly follows the global coverage of corona. Whenever she gets time, she also looks upon the Internet and keeps herself updated, a trait she claims to have helped her save the customary briefing of the team of doctors under the team about corona belonging to the same family as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome, what are the symptoms, where all it has originated, and so on.
Kerala’s health machinery has been like this at least since they were caught off guard during the H1N1 days in 2013, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. A health expert close to the department, requesting not to be named, described this practise for an earlier report in Mint as, “whenever someone catches a cold in the rest of the world, we will be ready with a handkerchief!"
What Shailaja brought more to the table is perhaps a little more empathy and transparency, and perhaps an uncanny ability to smile when tensions are high in the air.
When the first corona patient was announced, the chiefs of several media houses came to her asking what they can do to help. She assured them complete transparency in return of an assurance to not publish any statistics apart from the official ones. “Kerala media houses are super vigilant, so if you hide anything from them they will go aggressive and publish their exclusives. I asked them not to publish figures received from here and there and promised a press meet every day. They agreed. So every evening, they can ask me anything," she said.
The smiling helps with the messaging that things are under control and help is on its way. But it is, she said, not always real. “When I am afraid, I’ll hide it within me. If I show some fear, everyone around me will be more afraid. I remember the hardened faces of my colleagues when the first Nipah patient came in. Everybody was staring at me, terrified that they would also be infected. I smiled and said let’s get back to work, and they were at ease."
For many in the state, she has become a source of strength and solace. “I really appreciate the way our health department handled this crisis. Each day, we get calls from the mental health team, and others, checking if we are alright. There is so much effort being made, right down from the minister, that makes us feel that we are cared for," said Ammu Sreekumar, a techie returned from China who is home-quarantined in Kerala.
“I don’t do anything special. I have a degree in chemistry so I have some knowledge about molecules and medicines. Otherwise, it is always a team effort," said Shailaja.
But who does she go to for solace? “That must be the memory of my late grandmother, M.K. Kalyani," said Shailaja.
“It may seem like another era now, but there was a time tens of thousands in Kerala died out of vasoori (smallpox). The public shunned them, refusing to give them even a drop of water," she said.
“My grandmother was not very educated. But she was a local leader. She would attend the abandoned vasoori patients and clean them and feed them. Before returning home, she will clean herself from a pond next to our house so that we children are not affected. She was a brave woman. Kerala is full of such brave women. I haven't got a quarter of their mental strength."