Managing COVID-19 in Kerala, India – an alumna’s experience

As a civil servant working in the state of Kerala, India, for the past seven years, I have been on the foreground while the state has dealt with various challenges – from severe flooding in 2018 and 2019 to the outbreak of Nipah virus in 2018. However, dealing with a crisis as multipronged and as uncertain as COVID-19 has been a matchless experience.

A street in Thiravananthapuram
Street life in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city. Image: Hans A Rosbach (Wikimedia Commons)

Since the imposition of a national lockdown on 24 March, I have been working as a managing officer in the Government of Kerala’s COVID-19 War Room, a single-point agency established to resolve grievances related to the pandemic. Our responsibilities include dealing with high-risk patients wanting to travel for medical attention, providing meals to migrant labourers, extraditing Keralites from abroad, and facilitating the movement of foreigners stranded in Kerala to their native countries.

In addition to its direct impact on the economy and everyday life, the pandemic has highlighted the plight of often-overlooked communities. In India, what has become particularly apparent is the need for more balanced interstate development. While working on the pandemic response, I have identified two cases in particular that reflect this – the plight of stranded migrant labourers and the pandemic’s impact on supply chain logistics. It is crucial that we do not let these issues fall by the wayside once the worst impacts of the virus have subsided.

Challenges for migrant labourers

Kerala has around 400,000 labourers from other states, most of whom are now stranded in Kerala without work. Many of them have dependents in other states who are now left with reduced or zero income. The Kerala government responded by implementing a massive network of community kitchens to provide regular cooked meals to over 400,000 labourers in the state. While this was effective as a direct response to address migrant labourers’ needs, it has brought up questions around the efficacy of our development model and the dignity of migrant labourers.

With the onset of lockdown, previously self-sufficient labourers have lost their agency, becoming beneficiaries of state support. Distress calls from workers saying that they want work and not free food, or that they just wished to go home, were disconcerting. While the state was facilitating movement for medical emergencies and death of immediate relatives, the case for migrant labourers to return to their home states – impeded by the lack of public transport and little access to funds – persisted unanswered. Their feelings of helplessness due to the ongoing uncertainty are compounded by fears of the virus itself.

The Lewis model of economics underlines that economic growth depends on the efficient transfer of surplus labour from agriculture to the manufacturing and service sectors. It essentially involves the migration of people from rural to urban areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that, during a crisis, these rural migrants who come to urban centres for their livelihood bear disproportionate costs. While India can develop policies to improve the lives and dignity of migrant workers, it must also address the underlying imbalance in development that leads to this forced migration between states in the first place.

Managing supply chain logistics during a pandemic

As a consumer state, Kerala is dependent on neighbouring states for essentials. A spike in COVID-19 cases in any of Kerala’s supplier states would result in a disruption of the supply chain. Lockdown therefore gave rise to anxiety about the possible shortage of essentials in the state, leading to initial panic-buying sprees and a decreased number of vehicles carrying essentials from the interstate check posts.

A significant part of my role in the COVID-19 War Room involves managing the supply chain of essential commodities for Kerala. In this atmosphere of insecurity, it was crucial to be able to collect and apply evidence to propose a workable procurement policy for the state. I evaluated the demand and supply of essential commodities by monitoring incoming stock, its availability, sales, and the consumption pattern of 16 essential commodities on a daily basis to assess demand and to make projections for future requirements. For a state with 8,70,000 families, catered by about 7,000 private and over 2,000 government retail shops, this is a mammoth exercise. I am also examining the health of our supplier agencies throughout the country to secure seamless supply of goods in any eventuality.

At inter-state borders, I am involved in removing the bottlenecks that arise due to stoppage of vehicles. We have created an interstate WhatsApp group comprising senior members of the civil service in charge of transportation in different states and make point-on-point interventions for every vehicle stranded. With these interventions, a seamless movement of essentials across the border and within the state is secured. By building rapport with retailers and suppliers, I can intervene in their concerns with the administration and the police machinery.

This experience makes me reflect on the need to shorten the value chain. Currently, the relatively agrarian states push agricultural products into even the distant states where the tertiary sector is dominant. How can India promote localism – without advocating protectionist or conservative measures – to shorten the supply chain and minimise risk from future crises?

While the exact details of how to create sustainable, balanced interstate development may not yet be clear, there is value in knowing the right questions to ask when working as a policymaker. This was a skill I developed while studying the Master of Public Policy, learning how to contextualise policy issues within their wider framework. The knowledge I gained during my time at the Blavatnik School of Government is helping me at each stage of my work in Kerala’s pandemic response. I have referred back to Foundations to reflect on the moral challenges of the pandemic, applied the skills I gained from Evidence in Public Policy to address supply and demand issues, and drawn on lessons from Politics of Policymaking to collaborate effectively with colleagues across multiple contexts. I will continue to draw on these lessons to address the longer-term social, political and economic challenges that have been brought to the surface by this pandemic.

Mrunmai Joshi (MPP 2018) is an alumna of the Blavatnik School of Government. She is a civil servant in the Indian Administration Service.

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