It’s not very common for a person to be given the opportunity to lead a panchayat in Kerala in their first term. Even less common if the person is a woman. And so, when 48-year-old Jini Rajeev, a member of the Congress party, was offered the leadership mantle by her party after she won her debut election from the 11th ward in Thuravoor panchayat in December last year, she was elated. Located in the northeastern suburbs of Kochi in Ernakulam district, Thuravoor was where Jini was born and lived all of her life. She knew its people and their problems like the back of her hand.
But just four months into her term, Jini was up against the most challenging period in her life as Thuravoor, along with the rest of Kerala and the country, got swept up in the crushing second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was very much unlike the first wave in the summer of 2020 when Kerala had managed to remain above the current with commendable results. Between April and July this year, Covid cases spread rapidly across the panchayat, propelled by the highly-transmissible Delta variant.
“It was quite scary,” said Jini, over the phone. “At the height of the wave, we had over 300 active cases in the panchayat, most of them isolated at home. Entire families had tested positive. We had to handle daily calls from them about finding beds in hospitals, oxygen support, food etc. It wasn’t easy. “
But luckily for Jini there was a proven system to tackle Covid, handed down by the previous council, that just needed to be activated and sharpened for maximum results. It’s part of the larger famed decentralized system of Kerala that gives local bodies like Thuravoor autonomous powers that prove valuable during crises. That the state has raced ahead in key sectors like health, education, poverty reduction and social welfare is thanks to the local bodies’ freewheeling powers in these areas.
“Our rapid response teams (RRT) at the ward-level were strengthened. We opened a help desk at the panchayat that operated 24 × 7 catering to all needs of the people. We restarted community kitchens to help supply food to families where everyone had tested positive. Most of them were physically weak to cook food by themselves and so we pitched in. A domiciliary care center (DCC) was opened for patients who didn’t have quarantine space at home, ”said Jini, explaining some of the measures the panchayat took. The DCCs, set up temporarily in auditorium-like spaces in every local body, were designed for those who didn’t have ample space for quarantine at home.
The system worked, said Jini, only because of cooperation and consensus among members of the panchayat and allied wings like the police. She described how young men, drafted into the RRT, often set aside their daily jobs at the hint of a phone call from her and volunteered to do all sorts of jobs like supplying food, medicine, ferrying patients to and from hospitals and assisting in cremations and burials. There have been instances, she said, at the height of the wave that her fellow ward members showed no hesitancy in donning protective suits for cremations of Covid-19 victims when their family members weren’t available. They didn’t have to do it, but that they chose to do it showed compassion and courage.
But perhaps the toughest mental block for Jini came on May 3 when she herself tested positive for Covid-19 even as the panchayat battled the pandemic. A diabetic with prolonged breathing issues, her family, especially her husband Rajeev, were tensed whether she would develop complications. Her blood sugar levels shot up intermittently during her 15-day stay in isolation at home, but she escaped the virus without major bruises.
“But around the same period that I was in isolation, I lost five people in my ward to Covid. These were people that I knew from my childhood. To hear of their deaths from afar and to not be able to see them or their families caused me a great deal of pain. It was a huge mental block for me, ”she said.
The panchayat recorded 27 deaths due to Covid, with a majority of them in the last six months. Jini said almost all of them were elderly persons with grave comorbidities. “Covid exacerbated their conditions,” she told indianexpress.com in September.
Meanwhile, under Jini’s leadership, Thuravoor achieved the feat of administering the first dose of the vaccine to all above the age of 18.
As a woman panchayat president in her debut term, did she face obstacles? “No, I don’t think so. A woman can lead just as well as a man. But the important thing here is we need cooperation from everyone. We need all the help we can get. There are people from different parties in the council, but when we work for the people, there shouldn’t be politics. “
In neighboring Thrissur district’s Choondal panchayat, Rekha Sunil of the CPI (M) has been on the forefront of the fight against Covid since January last year when the first-ever case of the virus was reported in the district. In the outgoing 2015-20 council of the panchayat, she served as the vice-president and after elections last year, she got the coveted president’s post. And so, she has the rare perspective of being in the leadership throughout the pandemic.
“Numbers (cases) were generally low last year and people didn’t develop serious complications. But this year, it was very, very tough. Disease transmission was extensive. If one person got it, his / her entire household would get it. And so, we had to shift them to the local DCC very fast, as soon as they turned symptomatic. During the first wave, we did contact tracing very well. But this time, we couldn’t do it because the number of cases was massive, ”said Rekha. At the height of the second wave, Choondal panchayat had over 1500 active cases.
The 49-year-old, who suspended her studies after the 10th grade, said she worked hard on making herself accessible to the public during the crisis. “I looked at the issues in the panchayat as if it was my home. Won’t we do everything in our capacity to solve problems in our home? That’s what I did. I told ward members and officials to call me any time of the day or night. If a patient has to be shifted at night to a hospital, I’ll get it done. “
She credited a large part of the Covid management at the grassroot-level to the efficiency of the RRT volunteers. With no funds at disposal to pay them, the panchayat pulled in a sponsor to bear fuel expenses of volunteers for duties like ferrying patients to hospitals and distributing food and medicines. “They are like my kids. I ask them if they can help and they almost always do. Because of them, I never felt alone, ”said Rekha, adding that her son, now working in an event management firm, was also part of the RRT during the second wave.