During the campaign for the 2021 Kerala assembly elections, a poster of Veena George had gone viral on social media. The poster had two photos on it. One was of Veena from her time as a news anchor, looking sophisticated and elegant. The other showed her during her first term as the MLA representing Aranmula constituency, looking sun-burnt and almost dishevelled.
The contrast effectively conveyed the story of her transformation from a 'TV personality' into one of the most “grounded” MLAs in Kerala. That the voters in her constituency appreciated this transformation was proven when she retained the seat, winning by a margin of over 19,000 votes. Before Veena won Aranmula in 2016—by around 7,000 votes—it had been a Congress bastion.
Though she was expected to get a prime slot in the second Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet, her appointment as the health minister—replacing K.K. Shailaja aka Shailaja teacher, who had gained international fame—surprised many. Veena also shocked old-school communists during the swearing-in ceremony by taking oath in God's name.
Aged 45, she is the youngest member of the Left Democratic Front cabinet. And her first ministerial stint has been a baptism of fire. Apart from the hue and cry over the replacement of Shailaja teacher, Veena also had to tackle skyrocketing Covid-19 numbers from day one. The opposition has called her ineffective, immature and arrogant. And comparisons with Shailaja teacher have kept the pressure up.
However, a senior health department official, who has worked with both ministers, told THE WEEK, on condition of anonymity, that it was fundamentally unfair to compare them. “Shailaja teacher had three years experience as health minister when she had to deal with Covid. But, Veena took charge when Covid was at its peak,” he said.
Moreover, Veena is a relatively new entrant into the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Shailaja teacher was a senior party figure who could easily “throw her weight around”. Some even say that Veena wilts easily under pressure. However, while she may be struggling to cope with her hectic schedule (and having lunch as late as 4pm), she does not come across as someone who gives up easily.
Observe her closely and you can still see the determination of the diligent student who regularly topped her class, secured the first rank in her undergraduate programme and the second rank in her MSc physics degree. The fortitude that helped her rise to become the first female executive editor at a Malayalam TV channel is evident, too. Veena was also hailed as one of the stars of the 1992 state-level school arts festival for her performances in multiple dance forms, elocution and mono act; the other star that year was Manju Warrier, now a national-award winning actor. A competitive streak comes naturally to Veena.
On the day THE WEEK met her in her office, the Union health secretary had said that Kerala accounted for 52 per cent of cases in the country—a statement which would make most health ministers scramble for cover. Veena, however, looked poised and confident, though a bit worn out. “Yes, the numbers are quite high. But everything is under control,” she insisted. Excerpts from Veena's first interview with a print publication:
Kerala has been in the news ever since it reported India's first Covid-19 case in 2019. Earlier, it was for managing the situation well. Now, it is for having the most cases. Both test positivity rate and active cases are on the rise. What went wrong?
Yes, Kerala has the highest numbers. But, it was not unexpected. Our strategy right from the beginning has been to not let the pandemic go out of control. We never allowed it to spread like wildfire, unlike in many other states where patients died on the roads. No patient died in Kerala for lack of medical facilities. Our hospital beds were never fully occupied and oxygen was never out of supply. We managed to maintain control even when the numbers crossed 40,000 [cases a day] because we had a proper plan in place. We succeeded in flattening the curve. This also means that there will not be a sudden, drastic fall in numbers either.
But, why does Kerala still have high numbers?
Kerala is like a huge, densely populated town. There is no rural-urban divide, geographically, like in other states, which means that it is difficult to contain the spread. We have the highest proportion of old-age population and we have the highest number of people with co-morbidities. All these add up to a deadly combination that supports the spread of Covid. But, the fact that it never flared up here despite this conducive atmosphere is something Kerala must be proud of. You should also remember that the Indian Council of Medical Research has pointed out that Kerala is able to detect one in six cases in the community, compared with one in 33 nationally. That also explains why Kerala has high numbers.
Even the prime minister had expressed his concern and sent experts to Kerala to study the situation. If everything is under control, why is this happening?
The Kerala paradigm is baffling to anyone who looks at it from a distance. Many wonder why Kerala, which had managed to keep Covid numbers low initially, now has high numbers. The Centre sent many experts to Kerala to understand the phenomenon. They have all gone back with the opinion that everything is under control here, despite the high numbers. Anybody who understands the strategies Kerala is adopting has only appreciated our efforts. As the health minister, I am proud to point out that we are one state which has managed to deal with Covid scientifically. There was no rapid fall in numbers as in the case of other states as there was no rapid rise either.
Do you mean to say that Kerala is a victim of its earlier success?
I would say that [the successes] are results of our strategy, which has been in place ever since the pandemic broke out. Our foremost aim was to save lives and we managed that. Kerala has one of the lowest mortality rates despite having the highest proportion of vulnerable population. As per the ICMR serosurvey done in July, Kerala had the lowest seroprevalence figures in India. It meant that the proportion of the population who were not infected was still very high. In other words, it meant that our preventive mechanism worked quite well in protecting a larger section of the population from Covid for a longer period than in other states. Kerala's Covid-19 trajectory has always been different from the rest of the country. Ours has been a case of slow burn rather than a wildfire.
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The state government did a serosurvey recently. What does it say?
The final results are yet to come out. But it is certain that the proportion of people who have gotten infected will be much higher than the serosurvey done a few months back. Now we can afford those high numbers because we have vaccination in place. With more than 90 per cent of the targeted population receiving the first dose of vaccine—one of the highest ratios in the country, we are confident that Covid infection is going to reduce in the coming days. The intensity of the infection, the TPR and the hospital admissions have already come down drastically in the last few weeks, as we had expected.
When will Kerala return to normalcy, as per your plan?
By November. The entire targeted population will be vaccinated by then. Once that is done, life will be back to normal in Kerala. Everything has so far worked according to our plans. That should also happen.
You said Kerala has the lowest death rate. But the opposition has alleged that the government is fudging data to show a reduced mortality rate.
It (lowest death rate) is not my claim. As per the government of India's data, the death rate in Kerala is the lowest in India. It is 0.8 per cent, compared with the national average of 1.4 per cent. Now we are doing real-time death registration straight from hospitals and nobody can manipulate that. We are now in the process of revising the data on death after including all the applications. Even then, Kerala's death rate will be the lowest in the country.
There were reports about a Sputnik production unit coming up in Kerala. What is happening with that?
Not just Sputnik; the government is in talks with many national and international companies regarding this. Covid has taught us many new lessons and the importance of vaccines is certainly one of them. Another focus area for us is the post Covid care segment. Many have been suffering in that regard and we are going to tackle it on a war footing.
Kerala is the capital of almost all lifestyle diseases. It shows that there is something severely wrong about our lifestyle. Is the government envisaging plans to address this?
This is something we all must be ashamed of despite our success stories in the health sector. While it is certainly a matter of shame, the good thing is that it is controllable with lifestyle alterations. The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of having good immunity. The government is quite serious about this and is initiating a surveillance programme to collate accurate data on all lifestyle diseases and to chart out programmes accordingly.
The LDF has had women helming the health department for quite some time. You are the third woman in a row.
Oh yes! I never thought along those lines. Both my predecessors—P.K. Sreemathi and K.K. Shailaja teacher—have done exemplary work. In fact, they laid the foundation for whatever good is happening now. But, I really don't think that gender or one's personality plays a big role in the case of LDF governments. Because it functions as per charted-out programmes and a vision. We all try to implement the policies charted out in the LDF manifesto to the best of our ability.
Does being a woman help to head a department which is so sensitive and close to the lives of common people?
I feel my gender only when my kids come to hug me when I go home once a week and I have to stop them. I will be reaching home after visiting a hospital or attending meetings. More than 70 per cent of our Covid warriors are women and most of them are mothers who go through these situations daily. I think of all those mothers at that moment and that is when I feel my gender.
Health was one of the toughest departments a minister could get during a pandemic. Were you apprehensive? What was your reaction when you were told about this?
I was totally surprised when I knew I was chosen to helm the health ministry. I was not apprehensive, but I knew I had a reputation to preserve.
Your predecessor Shailaja teacher had earned international acclaim as health minister. Hence comparisons are inevitable. How do you deal with them?
She is a great role model for me and we are constantly in touch. The fact that she brought international attention to Kerala has only made me more responsible. I had the additional responsibility of maintaining Kerala's good reputation.
The party's decision not to give a second term to Shailaja teacher had created quite a controversy. How did you deal with the negativity as you stepped into her shoes?
There must have been lots of negativity in the media at that time. But, frankly I had no time for all that then. Because I was sworn in when we were at the peak of the second wave. There were more than 40,000 new infections daily. I didn't even have breathing space, let alone worrying over other silly stuff. My focus was only to ensure that our system does not collapse under the pressure and I am happy that Kerala survived that phase. Things will only improve from now on. What matters ultimately, in the long run, is the number of lives saved and the quality health care provided to our people. On both fronts, Kerala will stand tall.