Life or livelihoods? Just listen to the health experts

Sunday August 02 2020

A health worker (left) collects a swab sample from a child, resident of a containment zone to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Kolkata on July 23, 2020. PHOTO | DIBYANGSHU SARKAR | AFP


It is often said that for a person whose only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and during this Covid-19 pandemic, it has become clear that opinions on priority interventions will vary based on the expertise or profession of the person you ask.

Those of us in the health sector have argued since the beginning that in the absence of a vaccine or cure, age-old calibrated public health measures are the only way to keep the daily infections sufficiently low to avoid overwhelming our health system.

This hammer in the hands of the health professionals has predictably been contradicted by others seeing things from a different perspective. Lawyers have argued stridently to be accorded ‘essential service provider’ status, and have been busy cooking up legal and legislative solutions to the pandemic.

ultimate decision-makers

Engineers are figuring out how to understand the problem from their perspective and to design engineering solutions to it. And if you have a discussion with a passionate educationist, they will tell you just how wrongly the health folk are approaching this pandemic.

Economists and business specialists have succeeded in convincing the ultimate decision-makers that economic considerations are probably equal to or even more important than whatever the health experts are saying. At some point it became a contest between life and livelihoods.


The President was presented with what we consider to be a false dilemma between the sanctity and quality of life, and economic needs of the country. While the health folk argued that there can be no discussion of livelihoods when lives are at stake, many argued that it might be fine to put a ‘small’ proportion of the population at risk of death for the sake of economic well-being.

However, the most egregious of the ‘hammer-holders’, in my view, are the politicians. It is evident that our politicians expected this pandemic to be only a temporary interruption to their daily routines that included shenanigans in Parliament, comedy shows on our streets and the conversion of social events like weddings and funerals into political shows.

Obeyed political rules

Unfortunately, the pandemic has not obeyed political rules. It has extended beyond any other infectious disease disruptor in human history. And it promises to continue for several months going forward. Election schedules are at risk. Planned referenda are in peril. Plans to reorganise governments have been completely disrupted. And our political class is getting restless.

Unfortunately, some of our politicians have made the decision to disregard the risks the health folk have consistently communicated, that all of us are at risk of getting infected, and nobody really knows how any individual infected person will handle the infection.

We have a collection of danger signs to look out for based on what has been happening for six months, but none of these are cast in stone and they keep evolving as more and more people get infected.

The advice from the health sector is that no matter what hammer you think you hold, the solution for this pandemic lies in public health measures. Disregarding this will result in considerable personal pain, including loss of loved ones and even their own morbidity and mortality.

We must all support our health workforce to deal with this amorphous enemy we face, after which we can resume our normal ‘hammering’ based on our areas of interest.

Lukoye Atwoli is Professor of Psychiatry and Dean, Aga Khan University Medical College, East Africa. [email protected]