Our Malayalam newspaper in its Wednesday issue carried in its front page a gallery of about three hundred expatriate Malayalis who succumbed to corona virus,. That it took the human rights discourse of this situation to a new level is now clear from the responses the page has created. When expatriates and their well-wishers mentally identified themselves with the corrective initiative of the paper, the chief minister's criticism was also taken note of. The intervention of Madhyamam was in a way necessitated by the government's impediments for the return of expatriates citing lame excuses - even as approvals and facilities did exist. It was not about searching for the culprits of covid deaths abroad, but reflecting the sympathy and anguish generated by those deaths among the diaspora.
When the pandemic started spreading among Malayalis and started putting them under threat, it was the chief minister himself who initiated the attempts to bring them back by writing a letter to the prime minister. Countries including the UAE had also instructed the foreign nationals resident there to return to their home countries at the earliest which also triggered a rush of residents there. But as the initial enthusiasm about bring them back started dying out, clamour came again from the diaspora, and that left Madhyamam with no option but to take up the cause. When the actual return of expatriates started, the approach of governments seemed to be one of creating obstacles.
At a stage when thousands in the Gulf countries, after losing jobs and livelihood, became desperate to reach home, what we did was to raise the demand that their return should not be made any further complicated and the procedures should be simplified. For that very reason, we gave the warning that if the indifference is continued, more faces would get added to the gallery. Furthermore, we have the moral obligation to impress any one that behind each face staring at us from that gallery is a family in tears.
At any rate, the protest has met with its result. At the cabinet meeting held on Wednesday, the government relented on its insistence that expatriates should furnish Covid-negative certificate to embark on their journey. Now, in countries without testing facilities, wearing PPE kit will suffice as per the revised decision. Even as we say that this correction is welcome, it is unfortunate to have to argue with a government that declares it will protect expatriate at any cost.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said in the first week of May "the expatriates are as much Keralites, as we are; and they are equally entitled to this soil". He made it clear that all returning expatriates would be well received and that facilities were in place for their treatment and quarantine.
What transpired subsequently was that all those proclamations remained on paper. The central government circular that returning diaspora had to purchase tickets at their own cost, was implemented as such here. And those who shelled out the last rupee in their pocket for the flight had to further foot the bill of quarantine also on arrival. Even then those stranded there decided to reach home somehow by getting voluntary organisations in the Gulf to charter flights. The insistence on Covid test for those aspirant retunees amounted to clipping the wings of the expatriates' last hope. And it was the insensitivity in this that we highlighted.
But the chief minister on Wednesday termed this as 'anti-social activity'. Keralite expatriates are a segment acting as the backbone of Kerala's economy which makes it possible for Malayalis to stand up and talk loud and proud about renaissance Kerala and the Kerala model. If a plea not to ditch them amounts to being 'anti-social', we cannot help continuing with that. What merits discussion now is how a government that had sworn itself to offer 'complete care' to the expatriates, slipped into a policy deviation: instead of correcting those who point out flaws, the government is pouncing on critics. And this feature is not limited to the issue of expatriates alone. This 'push back' is visible in general in Covid prevention overall.
This policy deviation happens when the probability of the community spread of the virus is looming large. The chief minister himself had explained that increase of cases with untraceable origin is a sign of community spread. And over the last five days, about 600 cases have been reported in the state too. The chief minister also pointed out that 69 per cent of the patients are those who came from abroad. Thus this is a time when the vigilance and precautionary measures - which were in place when cases were far fewer - should be redoubled.
It is not only that this situation is not viewed with sufficient seriousness, but also that there is an overall indifference. Thousands are arriving in Kerala from foreign countries as well as from other states. And it is at this stage that surveillance mechanisms including quarantine have been made more lax. This amounts to a step-back from the covid prevention model presented by Kerala before the world. It is in the name of this very same model that health minister KK Shylaja has received global accolades and became the focus of attention at international audiences including that of the UN.
There is no denying that this is a recognition which this government and the health minister very well deserve. But it would not do good to the government or the people if those gains are nullified by thoughtless decisions. If it is not precise planning, but only emotional and 'popular' decisions that drive the authorities, the much-hyped Kerala model is bound to be short-lived.