The Compassion of Kozhikode

How Community Spirit Helped During Nipah Crisis

By Prasanth Nair

When the government orders came out posting me as the District Collector of Kozhikode, I was suffering from conjunctivitis. Though the disease had subsided, on the day of joining, it flared up and I couldn’t change the plan. So I had to wear goggles as I took charge, and my initial two weeks were quite embarrassing. I was very apologetic of my ocular attire.

But to be honest, I was made to feel very comfortable with my unfortunate predicament, not only by the staff but also by the public. I swear that had it been any other place, I would have felt so awkward that I wouldn’t step out. But in Kozhikode, the rules of the game are different and my shades were proclaimed as a style-statement, positively. It might sound as irrelevant and silly, but this initial tryst taught me a thing or two about Kozhikode and its people.

Today, when I hear about the resilience of the people of Kozhikode in the context of Nipah virus threat, I cannot but go back to my learnings and understanding of the psyche of that place and its people.

Extremely understanding of the difficulties of others and the willingness to step out of your comfort zone to make life better for others is a clear distinguishing factor of Kozhikode. Bigger the challenge, the better the response of the people of Kozhikode.

Even if there are goof-ups, the people are very forgiving and do not get into the dirty habit of fault-finding. The mutual trust that people have of each other is in many ways indicative of the high social bonding that exists beyond religion or caste compartmentalisations. In short, Kozhikode is reaping the rich dividends of a high social capital that has knowingly or unknowingly grown and bettered over the years.

Kozhikode is a place with a long recorded history and the unwritten part of it is the real story. From time immemorial, the city has attracted travellers with its prosperity. It has traded in spices like black pepper and cardamom with Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians and Chinese for more than 500 years. As Kozhikode offered full freedom and security, the Arab and Chinese merchants preferred it to all other ports. The place has a warmth that can only be experienced, not written about. Also, it has a knack to find positivity in the worst situations. Every tragedy or every challenge has been met with grit, determination and a lot of compassion, expressed through collective civil society participation.

In 2015, two sewage cleaning workers from East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh got stuck in a manhole and an autorickshaw driver from the city jumped in to save them. Eventually, all three died of asphyxiation. The incident was indicative of the kind of selfless sacrifices the people of Kozhikode are capable of making for fellow human beings.

In a world where family members kill each other, we are speaking of a man who sacrificed his life for unknown labourers from a far off state whom he had never ever met before. Isn’t that something that needs to be understood more? Especially since such compassionate acts are not a rarity in this part of the world!

  • A Network18 Creative by Mir Suhail.
  • Kadalundi train disaster of 2001 is one of the biggest train accidents in Indian history. On 22 June, the Mangalore-Chennai mail passenger train heading for Chennai was crossing Bridge 924 over the Kadalundi Bridge in Kozhikode District when four carriages derailed and fell into the river, killing 57 people and seriously injuring more than 400.

    Rescue parties, totalling over 500 people from nearby towns, entered the river to rescue people from the wrecked carriages. The instantaneous and unbelievable rescue operation done by the local community is documented in history.

    The landslides of 2012 or the flash floods of Pasukadavu in 2016 or the fire breakouts at SM Street were all tragic but also classic instances of local community involvement in rescue and relief operations. The team effort and the cohesion that such operations elicit from the local public is seen to be believed. I’ve personally witnessed such a community cohesion in Kozhikode during hours of crisis that helps us coordinate and take charge of the situation effectively.

    It was this factor of easily getting together for a greater goal that differentiates Kozhikode from other places in my opinion. What struck me in the initial days as Collector was the immense potential of civil society involvement and the possibility of mass mobilisation for betterment of the people.

    When I looked at the projects that have done well in the past and seemed to have captured the imagination of the people of Kozhikode, they all had the common thread of compassion and goodwill in it. The high impact projects were all that had a human element in it and those which involved community mobilisation and voluntarism. Immediately, I shifted focus to such projects or rather started initiating projects in that mode for higher impact. It's this exploration that led to facilitating a platform called 'Compassionate Kozhikode.’

    Experts setting up the trap for bats that were found inside a well near Sooppikkada in Changaroth.

    Projects like ‘Snehasparsham’, where the society would collectively pool in money to sponsor dialysis for kidney patients from financially poor background is unique in nature. We even planned for a universal health insurance scheme for the entire ‘below poverty line’ population in the district on the same model where the premium would be sponsored by those who could afford it.

    The project, however, was shelved since the state government issued orders along this line to implement universal health coverage across the state. It never took off. However, I’m confident that had we gone ahead, Kozhikode would have been the first district in India to have done that successfully. Kozhikode, anyway, has so many firsts in its name.

    What is the factor that clicks in Kozhikode? What brings them the sense of togetherness? It's not to be forgotten that we have had fair share of tension and violence in our society, many of which wouldn't have happened had we placed ourselves in the shoes of the other person. A compassionate approach is not surprisingly a path to better quality of life as well.

    I am convinced that Kerala is mature enough to engage in an effort to try and create such a society and that the lead can be from Kozhikode. Initiatives like palliative care found its beginnings in this district, again a project that harps on compassion and empathy.

    Kozhikode has that spark of humanity which is very difficult to describe.
    Students in Palliative Care (SIPC) is often the breeding ground for the Compassionate Kozhikode (CK) volunteers. Community driven and owned projects like ‘Operation Sulaimani’ run on goodwill, mutual trust and compassion to your brethren.

    There is a soul to the place that is much more than what has been understood. Perhaps something similar to the spirit of Mumbai about which much has been written about.

    Kozhikode has that spark of humanity which is very difficult to describe. In Kerala, we have heard generalisations of ‘goodness’ of the people of Kozhikode, an argument that is buttressed with anecdotes about the good Samaritan auto-drivers! The drivers are known for their honesty and hospitality. They are famously known to advise you as a passenger to take a public bus because it would cost one-tenth the price and the frequency is better. Many crudely contrast the Kozhikoden autodriver with one in Thiruvananthapuram who would take so many circles to extend the trip and gain undue money that we end up seeing five to six secretariats in the process!

    The soul of Kozhikode is something much more than mere goodness. In my experience as the District Collector, this place seems to have taught me much more than mere goodness. It is to do more with love, brotherhood and compassion. It's about the culture of sharing; sharing for the betterment of people and places.

  • Hero of Perambra: The Nurse Who Gave Her Life to Care for Nipah Victims.
  • A plethora of initiatives were launched by the district administration in partnership with civil society, government agencies and citizens, who volunteer to create an authentic and inspirational destination for them to live and invite people to visit and be part of their lives and experiences. I realised that we can only be facilitators and to some extent be the matchmakers, helping people to do good.

    Being there for the other person, we believe, is an inherent quality or feeling within ourselves. It's standing together for the others that brings out the best in us. The collective consciousness of a place is as important as our own individual consciousness. Kozhikode over the years has captured the imagination of the public when it comes to its warmth and hospitality.

    The doctors of Kozhikode can be proud that the very second case was rightly diagnosed as Nipah infection. Apart from the symptoms, the death of a close contact with similar symptoms less than two weeks ago was the only clue in this case. Nipah was tested for and confirmed promptly. Following this, containment action swung in with reasonably good results. We should also remember that the state of Kerala previously didn’t face any similar health hazard with high mortality rates like in Nipah and the robust response at such a short notice was no mean task.

    During the course of containing Nipah, there was mild criticism from within the medical community that Ebola protocol was not fully enforced by the administration whereas it should have been. The unintentional and inevitable shifting of the epicentre of Nipah from Perambra to Medical College Hospital, the initial difficulties and delays in setting up isolation wards, lack of information flow within the medical community and caregivers with regard to the patient contacted persons, broken down incinerators, shortage of supplies, including non-permeable PPE were all irritants which would have overwhelmed any other team. Not Team Kozhikode.

    The fact that Dr Saritha, Director of Health Services, led the team from the front made a huge difference. She was the District Medical Officer of Kozhikode during my tenure and I have witnessed her dynamic involvement facilitating rapid changes in the Mental Health Centre at Kuthiravattom.

    In the wake of Nipah, despite the resource crunch and other limitations, including hospital itself turning into an infecting ground, the team did not lose heart. Nor did they waste time sobbing over the fact that we could not limit the infection to Perambra. The inevitable was accepted and what next was the question.

    The people of Kozhikode responded marvellously and did not complain or waste time in taking steps to prevent the spread of the disease. Though most media outlets carried news that there was panic and that the streets were abandoned, I would like to see it as abundant caution and a smart move whereby crowded settings were avoided voluntarily by the citizens.

    When we really don’t have 100% control or information about the carriers or contacted persons, it would be foolhardy to encourage people to assume normalcy. After the period of caution and ‘quarantine’ is over, I am sure that Kozhikode would be back to normal with all its vibrancy. We need not underestimate the judgment or capacity of the people of Kozhikode and make sweeping statements that the people got scared and were holed up in their houses. That’s a smart move if you can afford to do it.

    The people of Kozhikode collectively achieved what perhaps a strict Ebola protocol implementation could have achieved in Perambra. The people of Kozhikode whom I know, do not panic so easily. But they respond to any crisis in the most effective and decisive manner with a lot of heart in it.

    (The author is a former district collector of Kozhikode. Views are personal.)