Kerala’s early initiatives in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the highly effective public health strategies it adopted that helped keep death rates very low for several months, came in once again for international commendation recently when former State Health Minister K.K. Shailaja was awarded the prestigious 2021 Central European University (CEU) Open Society Prize.
The award, the university’s highest honour, was presented to her in recognition of “her determined leadership and community-based public health work, saving lives during the pandemic” at a virtual convocation, with students joining from all over the world for the university’s 30th Graduation Ceremony held from Vienna on June 17.
Presenting the CEU Open Society Prize to her, Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of CEU, said: “The prize is awarded this year to an extraordinary public servant from the developing world. As Minister of Public Health in the Indian State of Kerala, during the COVID-19 pandemic, K.K. Shailaja Teacher and the dedicated staff of the public health service demonstrated to the world that determined leadership, community based public health and effective communication can save lives. Shailaja Teacher’s example will inspire young women to enter public service and Kerala’s record in containing the epidemic gives hope to nations in the developing world. By awarding CEU’s highest award to Shailaja Teacher, the university honours a public servant and female leader for her commitment to public health services, the bedrock of every open society.”
In her acceptance speech Shailaja spoke about how Kerala had decided early on that its strategy for tackling the pandemic “had to be centred on securing the government’s commitment and accountability to the people as well as working in synergy with civil society,” and that the steps that the State took “had to be rooted in scientific temper, based on the realisation that we must be equipped with a knowledge base and a robust health infrastructure” in order to manage the crisis well.
She said that the most rewarding facets were the “team work and sense of cohesiveness” behind the efforts to tackle the pandemic in the State and the approach “to systematically increase the capacity and resilience of the State’s public health system, to prepare for effectively responding to other crisis in future too”.
“As a science teacher early on in my career, and then on joining politics, it has been my conviction that a scientific temper must be promoted and it encompasses an attitude of curiosity and desire to reform,” she said, also referring to the “many touching and inspirational experiences” of people working in the frontlines, “putting their life at stake, braving unique challenges and leading from the forefront with kindness and empathy”.“Kerala’s achievements in public health, our responsive institutions, respect for human rights and transparency in information are reflections of the values in support of an open society,” she said in her online address to nearly 500 students from various countries who were graduating in 2021. Asking the students to stay curious, keep learning and share their knowledge with others she said: “We live in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world where leaders must rise to global challenges and work out new constructive solutions together, to build an equitable society. As you step out into the world, this is an opportunity for each one of you to change the world and write history. Find that leader in you.”
CEU was founded in 1991 by George Soros, a Hungarian-born political activist and billionaire philanthropist based on his vision of a unique institution that would train future generations of scholars, professionals, politicians, and civil society leaders “to contribute to building open and democratic societies that respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law”. It was founded to accompany Hungary’s transition to a liberal democracy and was based on Soros’ firm belief that a free society also needed a free university and that open societies can flourish only with people in positions of responsibility who are educated to promote them.
The CEU’ Open Society Prize is awarded annually to an individual or organisation “whose achievements have contributed substantially to the creation of an open society”. Earlier recipients of the award has included (among others) Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic; Antjie Krog, poet and journalist; Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile; Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations; Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former President of Finland; Medicins Sans Frontiers; Joachim Gauck, former president of Germany; Janos Kornai, Hungarian economist; Joseph E. Stiglitz, economist and Nobel Prize laureate; and Svetlana Alexievich, Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.