Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

A virus, social democracy, and dividends for Kerala


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Social democracy.

Mains level : Paper 2- What were the factors that helped Kerala deal most effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic?

This article is an analysis of Kerala’s success in dealing with the Covid-19. Factors that emerge are-strong emphasis on the social democracy, the participation of civil society and strong social compact between the government and citizenry. We have also covered the same subject in a previous article but focus there was more on the administrative level.

Kerala’s success story

  • Kerala was the first State with a recorded case of coronavirus and once led the country in active cases.
  • It now ranks 10th of all States and the total number of active cases (in a State that has done the most aggressive testing in India) has been declining for over a week and is now below the number of recovered cases.
  • Given Kerala’s population density, deep connections to the global economy and the high international mobility of its citizens, it was primed to be a hotspot.
  • Yet not only has the State flattened the curve but it also rolled out a comprehensive ₹20,000 crore economic package before the Centre even declared the lockdown.

Why does Kerala stand out in India and internationally?

  • Kerala’s much-heralded success in social development has invited endless theories of its cultural, historical or geographical exceptionalism.
  • But taming a pandemic and rapidly building out a massive and tailored safety net is fundamentally about the relation of the state to its citizens.
  • From its first Assembly election in 1957, through alternating coalitions of Communist and Congress-led governments, iterated cycles of social mobilisation and state responses have forged what is in effect a robust social democracy.
  • The current crisis underscores the comparative advantages of social democracy.

Kerala’s success is built on social democracy in the state. Following are the factors that constitute the social democracy in the state which is helping it fight against the Covid-19 pandemic with considerable success. These factors are also important from the Mains point of view if the question is framed on Kerala’s success story.

How social democracy is practised in Kerala?

  • Social democracies are built on an encompassing social pact with a political commitment to providing basic welfare and broad-based opportunity to all citizens.
  • In Kerala, the social pact itself emerged from recurrent episodes of popular mobilisation.
  • Popular mobilisations include the temple entry movement of the 1930s to the most recent various gender and environmental movements.
  • These movements nurtured a strong sense of social citizenship.
  • These movements also drove reforms that have incrementally strengthened the legal and institutional capacity for public action.
  • Second, the emphasis on rights-based welfare has been driven by and in turn has reinforced a vibrant, organised civil society.
  • This civil society demands continuous accountability from front-line state actors.
  • Third, this constant demand-side pressure of a highly mobilised civil society and a competitive party system has pressured all governments in Kerala.
  • The pressure made governments to deliver public services and to constantly expand the social safety net, in particular a public health system that is the best in India.
  • Fourth, that pressure has also fuelled Kerala’s push over the last two decades to empower local government.
  • Nowhere in India are local governments as resourced and as capable as in Kerala.
  • Finally, all of this ties into the greatest asset of any deep democracy, that is the generalised trust that comes from a State that has a wide and deep institutional surface area.
  • That on balance treats people not as subjects or clients, but as rights-bearing citizens.

How the built-in social democracy is helping in dealing with the pandemic?

  • A government’s capacity to respond to a cascading crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic relies on a very fragile chain of –(1)mobilising financial and societal resources, (2)getting state actors to fulfil directives, (3)coordinating across multiple authorities and jurisdictions and maybe, most importantly, (4)getting citizens to comply.
  • First, an effective response begins with programmatic decision-making.
  • From the moment of the first reported case in Kerala, Chief Minister convened a State response team that coordinated 18 different functional teams.
  • The CM held daily press conferences and communicated constantly with the public.
  • Kerala’s social compact demanded no less.
  • Second, the government was able to leverage a broad and dense health-care system.
  • The health-care system, despite the recent growth of private health services, has maintained a robust public presence.
  • Kerala’s public health-care workers are also of course highly unionised and organised, and from the outset the government lay emphasis on protecting the health of first responders.
  • Third, the government activated an already highly mobilised civil society.
  • As the cases multiplied, the government called on two lakh volunteers to go door to door, identifying those at risk and those in need.
  • A State embedded in civil society — the women’s empowerment Kudumbasree movement being a case in point.
  • Kudumbasree movement was in a good position to co-produce effective interventions, from organising contact tracing to delivering three lakh meals a day through Kudumbasree community kitchens.
  • Fourth, you can get the politics right and you can have a great public health-care system, but its effectiveness in a crisis like this will only be as good as the infamous last kilometre.
  • And this is where two decades of empowering local governments have clearly paid off.


At a time when India is dealing with this unprecedented crisis, it is important to be reminded that Kerala has managed the crisis with the most resolve, the most compassion and the best results of any large State in India. And that it has done so precisely by building on legacies of egalitarianism, social rights and public trust. Other states and the Central government must learn from Kerala’s experience.

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