Health Minister of Kerala, Veena George spoke to Outlook about replacing KK Shailaja, challenges in the job, and the state’s preparedness for the third wave. Excerpts from the interview:
Q) Kerala assembly was the first to pass a resolution asking the Centre to provide free Covid-19 vaccines. What compelled the government to do so?
The policy of the Kerala government is to make available Covid-19 vaccine free of cost to all citizens. The central government was giving free vaccines only to people who are 45 years and above. We asked the Centre to make it free for the age group of 18- 44 years too. But they declined and asked us to buy vaccines for that age group directly from the manufacture. Though we began vaccination for the age group of 18- 44 years, vaccine shortage became a stumbling block. We write to the center every second day for vaccines.
We have been urging the Centre to change its vaccine policy and to ensure free universal vaccination. Vaccination is the only way forward in curbing the spread of the pandemic. It is an emergency. Many states were facing a crisis because of the central government’s flawed vaccine policy. That’s why Kerala Assembly passed a resolution demanding to rejig the Centre’s vaccine policy. Our CM has written to 11 CMs of non-BJP ruled states to press the Centre to procure Covid-19 vaccines. The state government had also taken steps to floating a global tender for vaccine procurement. We have also stressed the need to ramp up the manufacture of vaccines involving public sector undertakings. We are mulling to manufacture vaccines in the state. In the state budget, funds have been allocated for this purpose and we are in the process of inviting companies.
Q) Health ministry is the cynosure of all eyes given the pandemic situation. How demanding is the portfolio?
Frankly speaking, I was unaware that I will be given the portfolio. I never expected this. As soon as it was assigned, I started work in the right earnest. Every job comes with its own set of challenges and responsibilities. But Health is the most crucial Ministry during the pandemic. There are umpteen challenges and I am ready for each one of them. Every moment brings a new challenge and one has to think on feet. My experience as an MLA is also helping me a lot. I was involved in Covid related work in my constituency too. Kerala has a robust health system in place and we approach every issue scientifically.
Q) The decision to drop Shailaja as Health Minister in the new state Cabinet has triggered widespread criticism. Has it affected your morale in any way?
The decision was taken by the party. Shailaja is much senior to me and she is a central committee member. The party has assigned me the job and I will try to fulfill my responsibilities.
Q) Your predecessor Shailaja has earned global recognition for the handling of the Nipah outbreak and the ongoing Covid- 19 pandemic. Have you faced any comparisons between you and former Health Min?
It’s too early to make any comparisons and I am yet to encounter any. The health department under KK Shailalaja has done exemplary work during the pandemic. After the first case of Covid was reported in Kerala in January 2020, we had to coin our own protocol since we had no models to follow. We have weathered many adverse situations in fighting Covid considering the high population density, elderly population, and prevalence of comorbidities.
Q) Is the state prepared for a third wave as predicted by experts?
We are already making preparations for the third wave. Those who had not been vaccinated could be more susceptible in the third wave. Experts have also said that there is a possibility of a more infectious and mutant virus variant in the third wave. An expert committee has already submitted its report in the third wave and we are working on its suggestions. Our strategy has always been to delay the peak so that we can ramp up our system. That is still going on. We are in the process of increasing the number of ventilators, ICU beds among other facilities. Steps were being taken to vaccinate chronically ill and bed-ridden persons. Since experts have warned about the third wave hitting children mire, we are ramping up pediatric treatment facilities. We are paying special attention to vaccinate migrant workers and the tribal community in the state. We have a daily bulletin from every district to update about the vaccination rate. A meeting chaired by the CM reviews the situation in the state daily. The state budget has set aside a special package to fight Covid.
Q) From a Journalist to a minister, how are you coping with the new role?
It has only complimented my new role. Both jobs are about people and addressing their problems. As a journalist, I have worked 24 /7 sometimes even without holidays. It is helping me a lot in adjusting to the busy role of a minister. The journalist inside me will be always vigilant while making new decisions.
Q) Do you miss being a journalist?
Visual media has undergone a drastic technological change in the past years. I was in awe of foreign media when I reported the US elections back in 2012. Now Malayalam news channels have the technology.