Kerala, once celebrated as a model state for its effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and which had only eased its second state-wide lockdown nearly a month ago, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. On August 3rd, fresh Covid-19 cases in the state surged to 23,676, the highest single-day count recorded by any state in the past two months, contributing as much as 56% of India’s daily cases. Kerala’s test positivity rate (TPR) has been hovering at above 10 per cent for the last 50 days, bringing considerable pressure on the administration to curb the spread of infections.
As of now, it seems that being singled out for the wrong reasons, and the unwanted media attention that followed, has led a cornered state government to impose draconian new rules and new restrictions on the public that lack no precedent anywhere. These include:
* If an area has more than 10 COVID-infected patients per 1000 population in a week, triple lockdown will be imposed in that area for 14 days
*All shops, markets, hotels, offices and commercial establishments can operate from Monday to Saturday, from 7 am to 9 pm, to put businesses and livelihoods back on track. However, only those who have taken at least one dose of vaccine before two weeks or those possessing RT-PCR negative certificate (which costs a minimum of Rs 500) obtained 72 hours before, or those who have tested positive for Covid-19 a month prior, would be allowed inside the premises as customers. The same condition is applicable also to owners and employees of the establishment as well.
*The police can inspect any establishment for violation of this protocol and impose fines on customers, owners and staff of these establishments if they are not found to possess Covid-negative certificates or do not comply with other norms.
The state government presented these draconian new rules as part of its relaxation of the existing Covid-19 restrictions, an irony pointed out by Opposition leader V.D. Satheeshan of the Congress, who delivered a searing speech denouncing the new restrictions in the state assembly before the Opposition walked out of the assembly in protest against the new rules.
“Around 57 per cent of people who have not taken their first dose of vaccine will have to spend Rs 500 to go out shopping. A salesgirl in her 20s who is not vaccinated will have to shell out around Rs 5000 a month to go for the job as per the current restrictions,’ Satheeshan said in his speech, highlighting the absurd nature of the new rules.
He also highlighted the self-defeating nature of the new rules since they effectively require older people, who are especially vulnerable to Covid and who form the overwhelming majority of the vaccinated, to do shopping while the healthy younger population is required to stay home.
“What are these rules all about? Who thought these up? If you go ahead with this, history will remember this government as a ‘petty government,’ Satheeshan warned in his speech. He was referring to a recent admission by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan – who also handles the home department – that the state the government had arrested a total of 5,19,862 people for violating Covid restrictions, against whom a total of 5,75,839 petty cases were filed.
However, the state’s new health minister, a former TV news anchor called Veena George who replaced the popular K.K. Shailaja, made it clear that the new rules will stay. She did not respond to charges by the Opposition that she had misled the House by suggesting that the requirement of vaccine certificates in the new rules were a matter of preference and not mandatory. At least one news report in the local press indicated that the new rules were imposed in the face of stiff resistance from the government’s own experts and top bureaucrats, who raised the matter in two meetings held to review the policy.
Recently, it was reported that at least 17 suicides that took place in the state recently over the last six weeks were due to the economic strain resulting from the state’s harsh Covid-19 restrictions. Among the deceased were bus owners, business owners and people who had lost their jobs due to the economic fallout of the restrictions.
Public indignation has been growing following recent media exposes of the state police’s excessively harsh and high-handed implementation of restrictions, many of which are seen as irrational and even absurd by the public, going by responses in the media and on social networks. In one instance, the police harassed a woman fish-seller in Anchuthengu and dumped baskets of fish on the ground, while in Kasargod a man cutting grass for his cow in an isolated place was fined Rs 2000 for not wearing a mask.
Incidents like these, where the poorest have been at the receiving end of actions by overly zealous police and health officials and heavy cash fines at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet, have led to growing outrage in the state. There have even been cases where members of public have started collectively confronting officials and stopping them from imposing fines.
Forum for Health Justice, a collective of prominent activists and ordinary citizens who have been opposing the state government’s increasingly high-handed Covid-19 response, have described the rules as “impractical, immoral and illegal.” It declared the state government had no right to declare the unvaccinated as second-class citizens, especially when vaccines have proven ineffective in curbing infections and judgments by various courts in the country have declared at attempt mandatory vaccination, including at workplaces, to be unconstitutional.
Speaking to Covid Response Watch, M.K. Thomasukutty, the vice president of the state merchants’ association, did not mince words when asked for his response to the new restriction.
“This is a gross violation of human rights which won’t stand in any court anywhere in the world,” he says, adding that his organisation has approached the Kerala High Court on the matter.
Questioning the rules, Thomasukutty further said, “Earlier, it was declared illegal to ask people to reveal their immunity status, and several traders were booked under the Epidemic Act for doing this. Now, the same government is asking us to compel our customers to reveal their immunity status! That’s not all. The government requires vaccination for shoppers, but vaccines are not available. Any unvaccinated person who has to buy anything urgently must get an RT-PCR test done at the cost of Rs 500, the results of which take 2-3 days. In effect, only those have been infected in the past can freely go to shops.”
Even voices in the state’s largely left-leaning media too have come out in opposition to the new rules. In a scathing editorial, Manila C. Mohan of the webzine TrueCopy Think, said that thanks to its “wrong-headed and idiotic” policies, the Pinarayi Vijayan government now risked being “a deadlier virus than Covid-19.” Condemning the recent “boastful” admission by the chief minister about the thousands of arrests made by the state police for violation of Covid restrictions, she said that the entire population of the state are criminals in the eyes of the state.”
Dr S.S. Lal of the Congress, who is also a public health specialist who has previously worked with the World Health Organization (WHO), has called the new rules “irrational and unscientific.” Lal has been a critic of the state’s Covid management excesses from the beginning, saying that the government had approached the pandemic as a law and order problem rather than the public health challenge it was.
Privacy activist Anivar Aravind wrote that by imposing these new rules, Kerala is effectively “giving political consent to an anti-people policy to be implemented across India.” He said this was the latest attempt “to link immunity status with identity,” an undemocratic move that has been attempted by various governments from the beginning of the pandemic, which he says is meant to increase government control over citizens while also favouring the biometric industry. The examples he cited includes the Modi government’s Aarogya Setu app and the controversial vaccine passports that are being debated in the European parliament.
Ever since the Kerala’s rising case count started drawing negative media coverage nationally, the state government has been on the defensive when it came to its Covid policy. Local press had earlier reported how chief minister Vijayan had lost his cool in a meeting with his advisors over the spiraling case count, while health minister Veena George told India Today TV’s Rajdeep Sardesai that there was an organized campaign to show the state has failed in Covid control.”
Unfortunately for the state government, the new rules mandating vaccine certificates were issued the same day a six-member central team reported 7,000 ‘breakthrough cases,’ severe Covid-19 infections in vaccinated people – in the state’s Pathanamthitta district, raising questions about the efficacy of the vaccines in controlling infections. According to initial assessments by the team, breakthrough cases were recorded among those who received one or both doses of Covaxin as well as Covishield.
Sajai Jose is a freelance journalist