Kerala's model of health care has been widely appreciated for its effective containment of the Coronavirus. In an interview with Outlook, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan talks about the measures taken by his government to fight the pandemic and Kerala’s exit strategy post lockdown. Excerpts:
From having the highest number of patients in the country, Kerala has now dropped to fourth place. Has Kerala managed to flatten the curve? What are the practices that made the state a template for others to follow?
On April 2, the number of people undergoing treatment for COVID-19 in Kerala was 256. Three days after that, the numbers have been 251, 254 and 256 respectively. Today, it stands at 266. To categorically say that the curve has been flattened in Kerala, I think we will have to observe the trend for a few more days.
Right from the very beginning, we have been screening and quarantining people coming in from infected areas. Contacts of positive cases have been rigorously traced and placed under observation. As there was a steep swell in the cases, Kerala went into a lockdown even before it was announced at the national level. While taking all these precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus, we have also been testing at a rate that is unmatched by any other state, to accurately ascertain the spread. And now, we have moved towards rapid and mass testing, setting up even kiosks for this purpose. Together, all these efforts have helped us in containing the virus thus far.
In a meeting with Chief Ministers last week, the Prime Minister asked all states to chalk out an exit strategy as the lockdown period is nearing. What will be Kerala’s strategy? Will it go for a phased rollback?
A phased rollback of the lockdown seems to be the most rational approach at this stage, especially considering the fact that a few of our districts have been designated as hotspots by the Government of India. As directed by the Prime Minister, we have set up a Task Force to devise a strategy and make suggestions in this regard to the Government of India. It is being headed by our former Chief Secretary Dr. K M Abraham. Yesterday, I received their report. Let me go through it.
Kerala, among other states, has reported a high number of coronavirus cases. But it has been allocated only Rs.157 crore under State Disaster Response Mitigation Fund (SDRMF) - much less than other states. Is it adequate though the state has demanded more?.
You see, on our own initiative, even before going into lockdown, Kerala had announced a special package to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore to tide over the challenges caused by this pandemic. Whatever amount is earmarked that will not be too much. We hope that additional allocation will come through in the coming days. We are always optimistic.
Many states also have been demanding more facilities for testing and test kits from the Centre. Do you think the Centre should be more forthcoming in this aspect?
The World Health Organisation has repeatedly been asking countries to test more and more. Also, the experience of countries that have been able to contain the spread of the virus points to how essential mass and rapid testing is. As I mentioned, Kerala has already taken it up. Hopefully, others will also follow suit.
The Centre owes huge GST dues to Kerala and no additional market borrowing is also allowed. Will it lead to a financial crisis?
What needs to be noted is that Kerala is one of those states that receive only a fraction of the revenue it generates. Despite that, the GST dues that are owed to the state are delayed. In the wake of the crisis that we are experiencing now, several states are highlighting the issue of delay in GST payments. They are all asking for their fair and rightful share in the revenue that is generated. The Centre will surely have to address it.
Post demonetisation and the implementation of GST, India is already under a financial strain. It is amply evident in the fact that even after altering the calculation of the GDP growth rate, the numbers haven’t been quite favourable. Right now, there is hardly any economic activity happening. So, the government will have to intervene on both sides -- supply and demand. That is why I have already stated that this is the time to end fiscal conservatism. The strict rules of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act should be set aside. Extraordinary times require extraordinary action.