Bracing for next wave

After achieving significant success in combating the outbreak, Kerala prepares to handle a wave of reverse migration from the Gulf countries in the near future.

Published : Apr 23, 2020 07:00 IST

Chief Minister  Pinarayi Vijayan leaves after the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Secretariat on March 18.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan leaves after the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Secretariat on March 18.

“ONE cannot imagine or map what exactly the scenario would be unless you have a sense of how long this situation will continue. If it is prolonged, that is a situation you cannot imagine or plan for. But we will have to provide the bare minimum for everybody, get people to understand what is happening. It is going to be a time of big social problems when everybody has to be together.”

These words of Kerala’s Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, in an interview to Frontline perhaps encapsulates the thinking of the State authorities on how Kerala should move forward if and when the situation deteriorates.

Kerala seems to be acutely aware of what is in store if the pandemic continues and the economic disaster that will follow.

Yet, despite its extreme budgetary constraints, it was the first State to announce an economic stimulus package of Rs.20,000 crore and deliver welfare payments including Rs.8,500 each as arrears to 55 lakh persons. It also provided free rations and a kit of household provisions to each and every family.

The government has extended a consumption loan package through banks to poor households under the Kudumbashree network, apart from launching around 1,000 budget hotels serving meals at Rs.20 each and about 1,300 community kitchens that provide free meals.

It opened special camps for the large migrant population and destitute wanderers on the streets and provided them free food. This ensured that migrant workers remained inside their camps, except for one instance where some migrant labourers came out briefly onto the streets in a village near Kottayam demanding transport facilities to return home.

Kerala also ensured that even as it fought the spread of the disease, it delivered on the social welfare front too (‘Kerala model’, Frontline , April 10).

The largest crowds during the lockdown were of people from disadvantaged sections queuing up outside banks for cash assistance.

The first State to report a COVID-10 case (on January 30), Kerala had the highest number of patients at one point of time, but on April 15 it had only 167 positive cases.

In one of his daily press briefings, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that Kerala had the highest recovery rate, with 218 of 387 patients having recovered. With just two deaths reported so far, the State also had the lowest mortality rate of 0.58 per cent.

Of the 387 positive cases, 264 had returned from overseas or from other States and 114 contracted the infection through contact with them.

Of 16,745 samples sent for testing, 16,002 were negative. After the spread showed signs of a spike, Kerala had 97,464 people under quarantine, 96,942 of them in their own homes.

On April 15, only one new positive case was reported in the State—in Kannur district, where a person contracted the disease through direct contact.

On whether Kerala has “broken the chain”, Pinarayi Vijayan said: “To say that and for us to relax, some more time will have to pass... . If we start thinking that we have made it already and start allowing concessions, if we lose our hold, the situation could spin out of control. We have to be very cautious that such a situation does not arise. We have to be vigilant and realise that even now it can all go haywire.”

Kerala is still bracing for its biggest challenge since the start of the crisis—a third wave of possibly widespread infections is likely when those working in COVID-affected countries, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf nations, return in large numbers when lockdown restrictions are lifted.

The worsening pandemic conditions in the UAE and other Gulf nations led to shrill demands from hundreds of Keralites working there for special flights to return home. But the Government of India announced that flights to bring back such workers could be resumed only after the end of the lockdown period.

Moreover, Kerala has to ensure that enough quarantine and medical facilities are in place and make arrangements for strict surveillance and testing at airports and other entry points.

The first wave was composed of students of Wuhan University in China who returned home in January-February while the more potent second wave of migrants arrived from Europe and the Gulf in March.

Kerala is recalling retired doctors and hiring new ones and paramedical staff and requisitioning public and private buildings, including private hospitals, hotels, educational institutions and so on, to establish over 1 lakh additional beds and provide special quarantine facilities in every panchayat, with special attention for the most vulnerable groups, including the elderly.

As per an estimate quoted by the State Planning Board in 2019, nearly 34 lakh Indians were working in the UAE, of whom 8.3 lakh or so were from Kerala. The total number of Indians in all the Gulf nations was an estimated 85 lakh, 25 per cent of whom are from Kerala, according to Prof. Irudaya Rajan, a leading scholar in migration studies at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Emigration from Kerala to the Gulf has been on the decline and reverse migration on the rise, but over 50,000 persons migrate every year, he said.

He also said that nearly 60 per cent of the migrant workers in the Gulf live in poor conditions in labour camps where the chances of spread of the disease are high.

Also, at least 10 per cent of Indians may not have proper documents. Such people must feel trapped as they cannot return or even go to a hospital without identity cards, he added.

Prof. Irudaya Rajan estimated that two to three three lakh persons would return to Kerala when restrictions were lifted. Kerala is also worried that expatriate remittances, a major component of its economy, would dwindle as a result.

According to the State Level Banker’s Committee data, non-resident Indian (NRI) deposits in public sector banks in Kerala as of March 2019 totalled Rs.93,321.3 crore, while the amount in private sector banks was Rs.95,046.65 crore.).

Remittances from these expatriates are also the major source of income for their family members numbering nearly 80 lakh, according to Prof. Irudaya Rajan.

Economic distress

The impact of the crisis is already visible in Kerala’s other important revenue sectors: the tourism industry and the service and export sectors. The State’s tourism industry, which generated Rs.45,000 crore last year, is set to lose Rs.20,000 crore in revenue, according to an early estimate by the Confederation of Kerala Tourism Industry.

The lockdown has badly hit several disadvantaged sections, with loss of livelihoods and jobs, indebtedness and other signs of economic distress clearly visible.

“You won’t realise how so suddenly it has turned the lives of people upside down, for instance, in the suburban villages around Thiruvananthapuram city,” said Rufus Daniel, a former panchayat president still actively engaged in the welfare of small farmers and farm workers.

He said the lockdown was introduced right when hundreds of lease-land farmers were beginning to recoup their capital from an intercrop of amaranthus, bitter gourd, snake gourd, long beans, elephant yam, taro root, sweet potato and many such perishables grown in post-harvest paddy fields.

These villages are well known for the extent of informal arrangements for lease-land farming, with individuals or groups, including women, spending Rs.50,000 to Rs.70,000 an acre a year to grow a variety of crops. “Their meagre profits, which many had to share within their group, came mainly from the intercrop of vegetables, which needed to be harvested at the right time. You can imagine their plight when suddenly they are asked to stay indoors, with a rich harvest threatening to rot in the fields, and they lose access to their only markets in and around Thiruvananthapuram and small towns and villages extending up to Kollam. State buses and autorickshaws, their only means of transport, have stopped plying, they can’t sell door to door, and informal markets at road junctions are all under lockdown,” he said. In the Kuttanad region, often called the rice granary of Kerala, harvesting is done with machines brought on rent from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka by groups of farmers. The lockdown was announced just when the summer crop of Uma and Jyothi paddy varieties were ready for harvesting within the required 120 to 130 days in upper Kuttanad. The first bout of summer rain had already threatened to spoil the crop. Rows of harvesting machines lay idle, with nobody to operate them, as drivers and labourers abandoned work and returned to their States nearby.

“Normally over 300 harvesters work the fields of upper Kuttanad, but this year only 110 machines could be brought here because of the lockdown and harvest was delayed even beyond 140 days,” said Sam Eapen, president of the Upper Kuttanad Karshaka Sangham.

The loss of marketing avenues and access to farm inputs were troubling farmers in the other agricultural district of Wayanad, which had the least number of COVID-19 patients. Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA C.K. Saseendran told Frontline that timely intervention by the government helped it procure the harvest at a reasonable price. However, over 5,000 farm workers from Wayanad who had gone to work in the ginger fields of neighbouring Karnataka remained trapped there following the lockdown and efforts to bring them back proved futile even after 22 days.

Even in normal times, there were several pockets of deprivation in the State, especially among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, fisherfolk, potters and artisans. Among the most affected groups in the lockdown, the fisherfolk in the 222 marine fishing villages and 113 inland fishing villages of Kerala faced extreme distress, “with 100 per cent loss of income”, according to T. Peter, general secretary of the National Fish Workers’ Forum.

Fishing literally came to a stop after fish auctions were banned in the landing centres, traditionally dominated by big-time auctioneers and traders. There are thousands engaged in allied activities, most of them women. Many of the fishing households are likely to fall prey to profit-hungry moneylenders, whose grip on them will continue for a while. “It is growing into a big social problem, with many families on the verge of a social and economic breakdown,” Peter said. Curiously, he said, not a single positive case has been reported in any of the fishing villages.

Of the 76.99 lakh households in Kerala, 63.19 lakh (82.08 per cent) live in rural areas. Of these, 10.32 per cent belong to the S.C. community and 1.63 per cent to S.T.. Out of the total number of rural households, 19.16 lakh (30.33 per cent) were already officially “deprived”. The highest deprivation rate is in Palakkad (42.33 per cent), followed by Thiruvananthapuram (38.36 per cent) and Wayanad (36.33 per cent) districts. Moreover, 57.66 per cent of S.C. rural households and 61.68 per cent of S.T. rural households are also included in the “deprived” category. In most of these households, the major part of income came from manual casual labour.

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