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Kerala model for coronavirus: No cities, no virus

The most honest way to understand the pandemic is not by looking at state totals, but at city totals. If you have more cities, the pandemic strikes you hard. This is obvious from looking at the list of top 10 cities in India.

At the outset, let me say this is not an attempt to disparage the government nor the people of Kerala. Despite some exaggerated claims by politicians. This is an attempt to understand.

We have been hearing a lot about the so called Kerala model of tackling the Coronavirus. Of course, one has to adjust for the fact that Kerala attracts automatic positive coverage because it has a Communist government. For example, Kerala has around 600 cases to date. Neighboring Karnataka has around 1100. Which works out to almost the same when you account for the fact that Karnataka has around twice as many people as Kerala. However, you can be certain that you wont hear of “Karnataka model” in the media any time soon. At least not until the state has a BJP Chief Minister.

Anyway, I digress. Let’s see if we can identify something special about Kerala. By now, it is clear to us that the pandemic is sustained by big cities. This is all too obvious. In the US, it is New York. In the UK, it’s London. In India, it’s Mumbai.

This makes perfect sense. A city generally has a large number of people packed densely into a small area. Also, cities tend to have highly mobile population. In times of pandemic, cities are dangerous places. This has been known for hundreds of years.

Tiny Singapore, with its population of 56 lakh people, has nearly 30,000 cases. That’s a third of the number for the whole of India! The pandemic is not in states nor in countries. The pandemic is in cities.

Consider how concentrated the pandemic is. While Mumbai takes up a tiny fraction of the land area of Maharashtra, it accounts for 56% of all cases across the state. Once you add in Thane and Pune, you are up to almost 80% already. In Gujarat, the situation is even more striking. Ahmedabad alone accounts for almost 75% of cases in the state. Once you add Surat and Vadodara, you go past 90%.

Up north, Delhi alone has twice as many cases as the whole of Uttar Pradesh.

So when we think nationwide in terms of the pandemic, we have to ask ourselves: where are the cities?

So which is the largest, most populated city in India? I’m sure you know that the answer is Mumbai. Then, there is Delhi. And they’re both suffering badly from the Coronavirus, just as you would expect. At No. 3 there is Bengaluru. But we have already agreed that we are not allowed to praise the work of BJP Chief Ministers. So we will just pretend that Bengaluru does not exist.

Who is next? There’s Hyderabad and Ahmedabad, which completes the top 5. Then there’s Chennai, Kolkata, Surat, Pune and Jaipur. In case you are wondering, Lucknow comes at 13, Bhopal at 16, Patna at 19, Ranchi at 38 and Raipur at 45. We are almost at the end of the top 50.

Wait a second. Where did Kerala go? Believe it or not, Kerala doesn’t have a single city in the top 50 in India. In fact, Kerala almost didn’t have a city in the top 75! The largest city in Kerala is Kochi, which makes it to the 75th place in the nation!

The most honest way to understand the pandemic is not by looking at state totals, but at city totals. If you have more cities, the pandemic strikes you hard. This is obvious from looking at the list of top 10 cities in India.

So here is a simpler hypothesis about ‘Kerala model.’ The pandemic did not strike Kerala hard simply because it had nowhere to go in Kerala. Because Kerala didn’t have big cities. No city in the top 50. Barely made it to the top 75.

Beware! Just because Kerala doesn’t have big cities does not mean it is not an urbanized state. In fact, the % of urban population in Kerala is above the national average. What this means is that Kerala’s “urban areas” are spread out. The state just does not have the kind of closely packed, super productive, metropolis that Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru would be.

So what do we have to learn? Without any disrespect to Kerala, not very much. Big cities don’t exist in Kerala because its economy does not need big cities. The usual economic engines such as financial hubs, tech hubs or factories do not exist in Kerala. Instead, the state has a remittance economy.

This works great for Kerala. But this is not a model that can be scaled up. The factories, the offices, the skyscrapers, all have to be somewhere. Wealth has to be created somewhere before it can be remitted to Kerala. In the case of Kerala, much of the economic engine has been shifted to the Gulf.

Again, this works great for Kerala. The state itself stays sheltered from the immediate drawbacks of a modern economy: big cities, polluting factories and now a pandemic. But the modern economy has to exist somewhere to generate the wealth that will support Kerala’s idyllic economy based on remittances, tourism and fishing.

So when we scratch under the surface, we find that the Kerala model has little to teach us. In times of pandemic, the most important thing is to identify the factors that lead to success or failure. In identifying these factors, the biggest mistake we can make is letting political biases get in the way.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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