Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which is being used as an isolation site to treat Covid-19 patients. Picture: WERNER HILLS
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which is being used as an isolation site to treat Covid-19 patients. Picture: WERNER HILLS

The Academy of Science of SA (Assaf) has urged the government to draw on advice from a broader range of scientists in its response to Covid-19, and not limit input to experts from the medical field.

The 45-member ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19, which provides advice to health minister Zweli Mkhize, includes some of SA’s leading figures in public health, research, clinical medicine and laboratory testing. Mkhize is a member of the national coronavirus command council, which is driving SA’s response to the disease.

The work of the MAC came into sharp focus at the weekend, after several scientists publicly challenged the lack of science behind some of the government’s most controversial lockdown regulations, such as when people may exercise and what clothes retailers may sell.

Medical Research Council president Glenda Gray and UCT's head of infectious diseases, Marc Mendelson, who chair the MAC’s subcommittees on research and clinicians respectively, are among the scientists questioning the wisdom of aspects of the lockdown. The health department has since acknowledged that the MAC was not consulted on how to ease the lockdown.

Assaf issued a statement on Monday saying that the pandemic was both a medical and a social problem. “This means that social scientists and humanities scholars should also form part of these advisory structures,” it said

“Psychologists need to advise on the far-reaching mental health costs of the pandemic following extreme forms of isolation. Sociologists need to advise on the efficacy of social distancing in human settlements marked by inequality. Anthropologists need to advise on meaningful rituals of mourning when numbers are restricted for funeral attendance and family members cannot touch loved ones in their final moments,” it said. Economists should also be consulted, it added.

Assaf said it was inevitable that there would be different views among scientists about how and when to ease the lockdown.

Describing the government has having shown strong, science-based leadership, it said its actions had saved many lives. “This was achieved despite uncertainties resulting from limited and evolving epidemiological and medical evidence, and the pressure that comes with responding to new and emerging scientific information,” it said.

As of Sunday, SA had 15,515 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 264 deaths.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za