Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has, for the first time, used his daily Coronavirus update to attack a newspaper’s coverage of the crisis in the first sign that the Left Front is worried about the work-in-progress alliance of the Kerala unit of Jamaat-e-Islami — which works to establish the Islamic way of life in India — with the Congress Party-led United Democratic Front.
On Wednesday, Madhyamam — the third largest newspaper in Kerala and controlled by individuals with links to Jamaat-e-Islami — dedicated its front page to displaying the photographs and names of over 200 Keralites killed by Coronavirus outside the state.
“How many more people do you want to die?” the newspaper asked in big bold letters above the photographs and names, alleging a lacunae by the government in bringing non-resident Keralites to safety in their home country.
Kerala has so far brought back about 80,000 people, including about 72,000 from the Gulf countries, since international flights were resumed in early May.
Over 225 Keralites have so far lost their lives to COVID-19 outside the state, while only around 20 have died within the state. The difference is attributed to the more robust public health infrastructure and successful containment efforts in Kerala compared to countries in the Middle East and the US.
The Congress-led UDF has made this a key political plank ahead of local-body elections in four months and state elections in 10 — and claims that the Kerala government has failed to bring back Keralites living abroad.
It has been calling for the government to bring more and more people from outside the state as a tactic to to puncture the rising goodwill generated by the government’s successful containment of the virus.
The UDF is also reported to be in talks to reach an understanding with Jamaat-e-Islami to build a united front against the Left Front in the upcoming elections via an alliance with Welfare Party, an outfit it helped set up nine years ago.
CM Vijayan scolded Madhyamam, the Jamaat-e-Islami linked newspaper, as well as the opposition for pursuing a cynical agenda by spreading the fake news that the government is standing in the way of workers returning to the state.
He said a total of over 1,100 flights have been given approval by the state government, out of which over 400 have landed.
Most of the 1,100 flights are being organized by various political parties, particularly the Muslim League — Congress’ key partner in the United Democratic Front, besides various semi-political organizations and clubs, including some left-leaning organizations. The Muslim League is also reported to be leading the talks to bring onboard Welfare Party.
Vijayan said the opposition, along with the newspaper, was trying to mislead people into believing that the deaths of Keralites living abroad is due to the negligence and carelessness of the Kerala government.
“Is it possible for us to immediately transport any infected Keralite in any country in the world as soon as he or she is tested positive and give care here,” he asked. “Every death is painful. But to try to make narrow political gains using those indicates a disease that is far worse than COVID,” he added.
Nevertheless, the Kerala government has, in recent days, expressed greater concern about the high-level of COVID-detection rates among the returnees.
It has been pressurizing the central government to arrange for preflight testing for COVID-19, instead of the current practice of putting all arriving passengers into quarantine and testing them seven days later.
“It is not possible for us to intervene in the health infrastructure of foreign countries. But what we can do, as a first step, is to provide screening to those who want to come back. If this is not done, it leads to the spread of the disease on the aircraft itself,” Vijayan said, adding that this was not just aimed at saving local lives, but also those of the healthy returnees on the aircraft. He has called for separate flights for infected patients.
About 69% of the 3,600 COVID-19 cases reported in Kerala since January have been among those who returned from foreign countries, while another 21% or so have been among those who returned from other states.
Moreover, the share of overseas returnees has been rising.
Local transmission, including the family members of above returnees, accounted for just 5% of the total cases reported in June, helping the state emerge as one of the most successful in terms of arresting the viral spread.
Still, the possibility of a viral breakout hangs like a Damocles’s sword over the government due to the rapid rise in imported cases. In just the past one week, the number of daily cases reported among overseas returnees has doubled to around 100 per day.
Given that current testing data refers to a period when around 3,000 people were returning per day, the infection rate among these returnees at around 3.3%, implying that each flight yielded 6 Coronavirus infections on average.
This is much higher than the 0.3% rate detected among people returning from other states, which include hotspots like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, though part of the difference could be due to a failure to detect.
The reaction to calls for bringing greater and greater numbers of people has been mixed, with NRIs facing discrimination in some parts of the state.
Most people currently in Kerala seem to favor a policy tempered with caution, but many of those who are trying to return to Kerala do feel a sense of helplessness at the delay in finding a ticket back home.
At least some of these people look upon government’s move to put in more and more safeguards and screening with suspicion.
On the other hand, there are also those like Haris Abdul Hameed, a non-resident working in Saudi Arabia, who penned a widely circulated note criticizing the Madhyamam newspaper’s tactic.
He pointed out that the newspaper carried the list of the dead, buttressed by an ‘outrage editorial’, only in its editions in Kerala, while omitting it in its external editions, such as those in Saudi, Oman, Kuwait and Bangalore.
He said he too would like to return to safety in Kerala, but was worried — like most others — that he may not have a job to come back to if he did so.
He said the inability to return home “is a subject with complicated social and economic dimensions” and accused media of using the issue casually for scoring political points.
He said Jamaat-e-Islami may be trying to mentally prepare its followers to accept an upcoming political alliance. He added that it was shameful that “attempts are being made to provide political legitimacy to the upcoming alliance with the UDF by using the pictures of dead people to create a division in society,” in his Facebook post.