Picture: 123RF/lightfieldstudios
Picture: 123RF/lightfieldstudios

In a week when US President Donald Trump received his first fact-check label from Twitter and an SA judge ruled that some of the lockdown level 4 and 3 regulations are unconstitutional, we should not forget that people have been arrested here for engaging in the spread of so-called “fake news” around the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our strict lockdown regulations curtail freedom of expression, so the government should lead by example and apply the same rigorous controls to its own advice. A ban on tobacco sales has extended into level 3 lockdown, but it has now been revealed that smokers might actually be protected against contracting the novel coronavirus due to the nicotine in their bodies.

This makes it high time the government admitted its mistake and apologised for its own fake news, and thinking it could dictate what is and what might be factually accurate. An open mind, a lively discourse and personal freedom are the necessary ingredients that will see us emerge as a free society on the other side of this pandemic.

The calamitous decision-making around the allowability of cigarette sales during the lockdown is by now well-known. President Cyril Ramaphosa famously announced that sales would resume when SA entered level 4 lockdown, only to be rebuffed by his minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. More recently Dlamini-Zuma announced that the ban on tobacco would continue all the way down to level 1.

The government has been dogmatically antismoking long before the Covid-19 pandemic. For those who perceive the government as a parent and the citizen as a child, this makes sense. But for others who regard the government as an institution not meant to “lead” us, but to render a very specific service, this is outside the bounds of acceptability.

Where our liberty and constitutional or property rights are at stake, the government must intervene. But dictating the lifestyle choices of consumers is not part of the social contract we concluded with the state.

That smoking isn’t exactly ideal for one’s health is a fact nobody — not even Big Tobacco — disputes. But this is wholly beside the point: adult consumers should be free to make informed decisions for themselves about a legal and already tightly regulated product.

The debate around smoking has now taken an interesting turn amid the pandemic. Prof Francois Balloux of University College London claims there is “bizarrely strong” evidence that the nicotine taken up from smoking might be effective protection against Covid-19. Much of this is ascribed to the fact that smokers represent a disproportionately small percentage of all Covid-19 infected.

At the very least — and much to the SA government’s dismay — researchers at the universities of New York and West Attica have concluded that smoking is not a risk factor for Covid-19 hospitalisation. Indeed, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health has gone as far as removing smokers from the list of people at risk of serious illness from the disease. And at most, some claim nicotine might be beneficial in combating Covid-19. Neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, from Paris’s Pasteur Institute, suggested this might be due to nicotine hindering the virus from entering certain cells in the body. The presence of nicotine might also be impeding the immune system’s over-reaction to Covid-19, which is itself harmful.

Thus, it might now be that nicotine is the missing ingredient in the search for a treatment for Covid-19. As I am a teetotaller who has never smoked and assuredly not a scientist, I do not know whether this will turn out to be the case.

Please do not start smoking for this purpose, as there are easier and less harmful ways to avoid contracting Covid-19. But it is something we should be open to discovering without letting dogmatic puritanism stand in the way. The same principle should apply to other, perhaps questionable, cures and treatments for Covid-19, such as the “Covid organics” touted by Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina.

Regardless of the eventual conclusions around smoking and Covid-19, it is not for the government to decide what risks people take in a free society. The government can provide us with information and warn against reckless behaviour that might endanger others, but it ought not try to regiment society in accordance with the preferences of the political elite.

The surprising revelations around nicotine should make us seriously reconsider the “fake news” paranoia that has gripped the world, and SA in particular. Here we have what many would rightly consider an absurd claim — nicotine might prove beneficial to avoiding Covid-19 — and would no doubt ordinarily be considered fake news but for the scientific and medical credibility it has since garnered, including via a peer-reviewed study.

The government must allow the market of ideas — supported by scientific evidence not political considerations — to determine what is acceptable or unacceptable to express in public discourse. The more we cede our personal and community responsibilities to the government, the more opportunities for progress and development — both as individuals and as a society — we will lose.

Tolerance for the lifestyle choices of our fellows and an open mind about new discoveries can only yield beneficial results for us all.

• Van Staden is chief adviser for legal policy on BridgeAfrica’s board of advisers. He is pursuing an LL.M degree at the University of Pretoria and is author of ‘The Constitution And The Rule of Law: An Introduction’.