Last weekend, people woke up to a rather interesting piece of news from Kochi, the most densely populated city in the state of Kerala. In a country where artificial intelligence is still at a nascent stage, two robots were deployed by the Kerala Startup Mission to distribute masks, sanitisers and napkins, along with information about COVID-19. The CEO of Asimov Robotics, which created the robots, told the media they have been put there to counter the “general public apathy” towards preventive measures against the novel strain of coronavirus.
Over the last one month or so, Kerala—the place where the first case of COVID-19 sprung up in India—has been leading the fight against the vicious spread of the virus, and it’s doing a fine job of it. And it’s not just because of the robots. This week, while most of the states were burning up with fresh new cases, Kerala confirmed no new ones. Even with that, they spiked their observation from 12,740 people to 18,011 (as of March 17)—out of which 17,743 are under observation at home, while 268 are in hospitals. Also, just a reminder that the first three cases of coronavirus in the state are now cured.
So, how did Kerala do this? A lot is happening in India, at the moment, as coronavirus cases rise almost everyday. Even though India was one of the first countries to shut its international borders, cancel visas and deny entries to foreigners, there has also been criticism over poor testing rate as well as the fact that despite all the risks, Indians still don’t care about social distancing, or worry that it will affect them at all. Some fear that India could actually be the next coronavirus hotspot.
But Kerala, unlike most Indian states, is on a war footing, and has been ever since the central government sounded an alert for the virus on January 17. Coronavirus was first reported in India in this state on January 30. It was a student studying at a university in Wuhan, China—which was the epicentre of the global pandemic outbreak—who had just come to Thrissur district for a vacation. Within four days, two more cases turned up in the state. On February 3, the government declared a state emergency. Experts also say that it was the state’s former experience with the Nipah outbreak in 2018 that made them even more cautious about coronavirus.
We looked into the different deeply impactful measures taken by the state:
It used surveillance when needed
Indian government’s shady and nefarious methods to impinge on privacy and data protection has given surveillance a bad name in the country. But Kerala has set an example of what this tool can do when you’re hit with a crisis. Last month, the state authorities released route maps of coronavirus positive cases—in which hundreds of people were traced across the state to look into risk zones—along with collecting surveillance data and live-geo maps to look at on-ground clusters of coronavirus’ possible spread. This was seen in the case of one Indian family that had just returned from Italy late in February. In a matter of a few days, the medical teams brought almost 1,000 people who could have come in contact with them, under observation and quarantine.
It made it less scary for people at the airports
At the airports, cities like Delhi are facing long queues of passengers just returning from their various destinations and facing chaos as well as “clueless” officials. So while positive cases continue to slip through the cracks of Indian airport authorities, in Kerala, things are a little different. In one recent case, the state authorities halted a flight about to take off, just to isolate a COVID-19 positive British tourist. The airport officials are also shifting passengers to care homes close to the state airport, along with setting up 5,000-capacity isolation wards to check COVID-19 cases. These instances are crucial, as more and more people, with no faith in the crippling public healthcare system, are running away from the airport’s screening areas and isolation wards.
It gave citizens comfort when they needed it the most
Considering that there is fear and paranoia around COVID-19, especially for those being tested and screened for it, nobody wants to be sent from one hell to another: the isolation wards. So while concerns across the country are being voiced against the questionable facilities people are being sent to for quarantine, people of Kerala are putting out happy stories of what their care centres look like:
Experts say that it was the Nipah period that led the state to identify the psychosocial needs of quarantined and isolated persons. Today, those lessons have served well.
It made people a part of the solution
In a country known for being extreme, where there is no middle ground, Indians are either simmering in complete apathy or spiralling from paranoia. But in Kerala, the state measures have trickled down to the social behaviour of the people. As the state machinery tries to keep people engaged, even in an entertaining manner—like this Kerala police campaign where they release videos of the cops dancing while enacting hand-wash techniques—people are doing their bit too, like selling supremely cheap hand sanitisers and face masks despite their soaring market prices. The Kerala administration also deployed inmates from district prisons to make around 6,000 face masks, which are washable and reusable.
It promoted social distancing the right way
The news report of robots giving out COVID-19 essentials in Kochi is a timely reminder of how technology can be more useful in our society at a time when cheap and often invisible manual labour can turn some people into complete assholes, like in the “human hand-sanitisers” incident. Not only is it dehumanising, but it also goes against the whole “social distancing” aspect of precautions. Irony, much?
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.