What Kerala, Malaysia can teach world about responding to COVID-19

Kerala’s strategy has been ‘trace, quarantine, test, isolate and treat’

kerala covid-19 Representational image from Kerala | PTI

Strong leadership with sustained public engagement, mobilisation of government and non-government players, long-term investments in public health, trust in and backing of experts, a commitment to educational literacy and gender equity and not loosening control even when things seem better are some of the similarities in the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by Kerala and Malaysia.

Speaking at a webinar, K.K. Shailaja, Kerala’s Minister for Health, said that the state’s strategy had been ‘trace, quarantine, test, isolate and treat’ as opposed to the ‘test, test, test’ strategy adopted by some other states.

“We are now in the third stage of the pandemic. After May 4 when the lockdown was lifted, and people started to return to Kerala, the number of infections has gone up. You cannot stop people from returning home. Our tracing system is well placed. We have completely shut down clusters from where fresh infections are being reported,” said Shailaja.

Kerala’s numbers of COVID-19 cases in the first two phases had been extremely low but now infections have started to surge particularly in the coastal areas. From 2,130 active cases at the start of July, the state now has 7,611 active case—a leap of three-and-half times.

The webinar, jointly organised by Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative and the COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition, was an attempt to look at what the world could learn from an Indian state and a Southeast Asian country for effectively controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, Director General of Health, Ministry of Health, Malaysia, said that his country had adopted a very comprehensive approach to tackle the virus. “As soon as we had our first infections in late January, our strategy was to swab everybody in the vicinity and introduce movement control in high-risk localities. The government has shown faith in the decisions of experts and paid heed to our advice. Every day since our first infection, there have been two press conferences—one on the non-medical aspects by the Ministry of Defence and the other by me.”

Abdullah added that the government’s willingness and openness in engaging with the public and not ducking hard questions had ensured that people trusted the government and followed instructions. Daily inter-ministerial meetings had ensured that all decisions could be made after much debate. The country had not lost its focus on other diseases during the pandemic and both COVID-19-specific and hybrid hospitals had been operational. The government had also encouraged private doctors to offer their services and had added 2,500 medical practitioners to its COVID-19 response team. Malaysia, which has so far reported 8,800 cases, also utilised the time lag between when the disease was first reported to its own first case, to equip more laboratories for coronavirus testing and introducing border control with five neighbouring countries, which had showed a rise in cases before the virus hit Malaysia.

Madhukar Pai, Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology and Global Health at McGill University and Director at McGill International TB Centre, who moderated the discussion, said, “No one is safe till we are all safe. Solidarity is the buzzword. We must work together to eliminate the COVID-19 virus in every part of the world. That means we must share our best knowledge to help others tackle the crisis and share tools like vaccines and drugs."