For this year’s World Public Service Day (23 Jun), the United Nations honoured the “front line warriors” that is, the public servants across the world who have been effectively handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus (Director-General of the World Health Organization) joined a virtual high-level panel and thanked the women and men who are risking their lives and health to deliver essential public services amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One of the leaders who was invited for the panel discussion to discuss the combat strategies and approach was Smt. K.K. Shailaja, the Health & Social Welfare Minister of Kerala.
Affectionately called “Teacher” or “Teacheramma”, Shailaja came into the limelight for effectively fighting the infamous Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala in 2018. So how did this firm-but-soft-spoken, down-to-earth, 64-year-old high school Science teacher from the small district of Kannur become the “Corona Virus Slayer” (as coined by the Indian Press) recognized by the UN and lauded by the entire world? The answer lies in her approachability, empathy, transparency, and calmness which masks her grit, resolute and mental strength in the face of handling some of the worst crises Kerala has ever seen.
# Empowerment acquired as a Legacy
Social work and activism run in her family, and the seeds for empowerment were sown very early on in her life. Shailaja’s grandmother Kalyani’s family worked in an erstwhile British tea estate in the pre-Independence era. After her husband’s death, a young Kalyani became actively involved in the freedom struggle and communist uprisings in the 1940s, when untouchability and social discrimination were at their peak. Along with her brothers, she fought for the rights of bonded labourers and protested against the exploitation by landlords. Being the only woman activist in those days, she was well respected by everyone and was considered a leader. People came to her to settle disputes; she worked for the rights of the lower castes and financially weaker sections of the society, took care of smallpox patients shunned by the society, and created awareness about the freedom movement.
Following the footsteps of this courageous woman, Shailaja also took to student politics while studying at Pazhassi Raja N.S.S. College in Mattannur. In the 80s she worked as a teacher and married a fellow Communist worker K. Bhaskaran. After joining the Communist party in the 90s she participated in the “Sampoorna Saaksharatha” campaign for achieving total literacy in the state. As part of this mission, she taught numerous women in their 70s and 80s to read and write or to continue their education from where they had left off.
#The Teacher who took Corona by its horns
Although the first Covid case was reported in Kerala on 27th January, the Primary control room in Kerala had already been set up on January 24th, along with the mobilization of surveillance teams. The state’s rapid response team had already implemented the pandemic protocols issued by WHO, much before the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had started giving out guidelines to follow the same. All this happened thanks to the quick thinking of Shailaja Teacher who convened a meeting just 3 days after the news about the Coronavirus emerged from Wuhan, China. Be it any time of the day or night, she was always ready to monitor all the arrangements and talk to her team daily. She faced the media and was transparent in answering questions and updating the Covid numbers of the state. Shailaja convinced religious leaders about the magnitude of the threat and urged them to inform devotees about the need for avoiding gatherings, festivals, and mass prayers. Although this was met with a lot of criticism from the various religious groups, she stood her ground.
Many of the health staff and officials vouch for the fact that Shailaja would patiently listen to experts and ask questions to fully understand all the details, and she would let the technical people “do their job” without any political interference. Her scientific thinking, knowledge of chemistry, her willingness to stay up to date on international trends, her savviness of using technology and the Internet, her approachability, and close monitoring of her team helped her in drastically reducing the mortality rates in Kerala and flattening the curve to a great extent (at least during the first phase, till Sep 2020).
However, the journey was not a smooth sailing one. Her tenure saw two deadly viruses – Nipah and Covid19 and various disease outbreaks during the floods of 2018 and 2019. She faced flak for the rape incident of a Covid patient, had to deal with the Kozhikode Airplane crash, encountered criticisms for interfering with religious beliefs related to burial/cremation of covid victims, she became the target of politically motivated beratings and allegations of a PR stunt; all this in addition to the rising number of Covid positive cases in Kerala.
#When the World sat up and took notice
Smt. Shailaja received accolades from around the world in appreciation of her persistent efforts to battle the virus. The major awards are listed below:
– The UN Interagency Task Force (UNIATF) award for 2020 was announced on September 24, 2020, by the WHO. Kerala received the award for its “outstanding contribution” towards preventing and controlling the spread of non-communicable diseases. This was a huge achievement for the state.
– She was named in the Financial Times’ List Of 12 most influential Women of 2020 (along with other prominent names like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, etc.)
– She was named as the winner of World’s Top 50 Thinkers Thinkers of COVID-19 Age by UK-based Prospect Magazine
– She was featured on the cover of Vogue India, a leading magazine, and appreciated for her handling of the Covid crisis.
– She was awarded the Mother Teresa Award by Mumbai based Harmony Foundation
– A movie was made in Malayalam by Aashiq Abu and Rima Kallingal to showcase the Nipah Virus outbreak in the state. Her only request to them was to make the movie scientific so that people can learn from it.
The CoviShield Vaccine has been made available across India since 16 Jan 2021, but the fight against the Covid-19 virus is far from over. Rather than resting on her laurels, this teacher-turned-politician-turned-warrior goes about her daily routine with an endearing smile – reminding us of our “favourite Aunty-next-door”. More power to you, Teacher!