A man walks in empty streets in Johannesburg on the first day of the 21-day lockdown. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI
A man walks in empty streets in Johannesburg on the first day of the 21-day lockdown. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI

It is not clear to me what substantial points were being made in the article by some of SA’s most eminent epidemiological modellers (“Uncertainty governs Covid-19 projections, so multidisciplinary research is vital”, September 3). They were replying to Prof Graham Barr’s earlier article (“Government shunned proper statistical tools to tackle pandemic”, August 23).

They obviously are keen to claim appropriate academic rigour and cautiousness for their much publicised projections about possible Covid-related deaths. However, the more general and much more important point this correspondence raises concerns the extent to which, in SA and elsewhere, highly uncertain and seriously mistaken projections about possible (but not very probable) deaths resulting from Covid-19 have led governments to adopt policies of drastic lockdown.

Presumably, SA modellers, like most of their colleagues around the world, realised that their conclusions would probably encourage governments to impose lockdowns, and presumably they thought this would reduce suffering and death. However, what the SA and other modelling consortiums seem to be muddled about is the kind of broad, big-picture cost-benefit analysis on which publicly policy is best made.

The SA group sometimes says estimating the costs of lockdown was beyond their brief. Then they say they did take account of cost estimates from others. Finally, they say cost-benefit analysis (of which they have a very narrow conception) is useless anyway.

The crucial point all citizens should recognise is the extent to which the objective of preventing avoidable and admittedly highly uncertain estimates of Covid-related suffering and death should be set against the also avoidable but largely certain suffering and death lockdown would cause.

These lockdown harms include increasing severe poverty, diverting medical resources from other health priorities, reducing tax revenue and damaging education at all levels, to say nothing of exacerbating mental illness and domestic violence.

Though I have no scientific or statistical expertise, I have a good deal of knowledge of the way public policies are best made on the basis of input from many diverse experts, interest groups, and open discussions in the media. In layman’s language, I understood this to be what Graham Barr’s article was advocating.

Dr Peter Collins 
Via e-mail

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