Kerala’s Success in Flattening the curve

Though Kerala was the first State with a recorded case of coronavirus and once led the country in active cases, it now ranks 10th of all States and the total number of active cases (in a State that has done the most aggressive testing in India) has been declining for over a week and is now below the number of recovered cases. Given Kerala’s population density, deep connections to the global economy and the high international mobility of its citizens, it was primed to be a hotspot.

Why does Kerala stand out? Role of Social Democracy

Kerala’s much heralded success in social development has invited endless theories of its cultural, historical or geographical exceptionalism. But taming a pandemic and rapidly building out a massive and tailored safety net is fundamentally about the relation of the state to its citizens.

  1. Social democracies are built on an encompassing social pact with a political commitment to providing basic welfare and broad-based opportunity to all citizens. In Kerala, the social pact itself emerged from recurrent episodes of popular mobilisation — from the temple entry movement of the 1930s, to the peasant and workers’ movements in the 1950s and 1960s, a mass literacy movement in the 1980s, the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP)-led movement for people’s decentralised planning in the 1990s, and, most recently, various gender and environmental movements. These movements not only nurtured a strong sense of social citizenship but also drove reforms that have incrementally strengthened the legal and institutional capacity for public action.
  2. The emphasis on rights-based welfare has been driven by and in turn has reinforced a vibrant, organised civil society which demands continuous accountability from front-line state actors.
  3. 3his constant demand-side pressure of a highly mobilised civil society and a competitive party system has pressured all governments in Kerala, regardless of the party in power, to deliver public services and to constantly expand the social safety net, in particular a public health system that is the best in India.
  4. That pressure has also fuelled Kerala’s push over the last two decades to empower local government. Nowhere in India are local governments as resourced and as capable as in Kerala.
  5. All of this ties into the greatest asset of any deep democracy, that is the generalised trust that comes from a State that has a wide and deep institutional surface area, and that on balance treats people not as subjects or clients, but as rights-bearing citizens.

How was this potential utilised?

A government’s capacity to respond to a cascading crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic relies on a very fragile chain of mobilising financial and societal resources, getting state actors to fulfil directives, coordinating across multiple authorities and jurisdictions and maybe, most importantly, getting citizens to comply. An effective response begins with programmatic decision-making.

Steps Followed

  1. Not only did the Chief Minister appeal to the sense of citizenship by declaring that the response was less an enforcement issue than about people’s participation, but also pointedly reminded the public that the virus does not discriminate, destigmatising the pandemic.
  2. The government was able to leverage a broad and dense health-care system that despite the recent growth of private health services, has maintained a robust public presence.
  3. The government activated an already highly mobilised civil society. As the cases multiplied, the government called on two lakh volunteers to go door to door, identifying those at risk and those in need.
  4. The key to effectiveness has been the capacity of state actors and civil society partners to coordinate their efforts at the level of panchayats, districts and municipalities.
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