Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times

Months before the economy was finally opened two weeks ago, scientists were advising the government about the harm of the lockdown, the collateral damage that was being done to health, and the way irrational regulations could backfire.

The ministerial advisory committee (MAC), a group of world-class scientists, has given the government advice about how to manage the Covid-19 epidemic with regard to various topics, including how many people can safely ride in a taxi, when to open schools and what treatment options are. Thanks to requests from news outlet News24, the MAC’s recommendations have now been made public.

Mkhize had earlier refused to release them, despite the scientists’ desire for that to be done. He has admitted, however, that the government did not always follow the MAC’S advice, as it also considered views from other quarters.

But News 24 sent the government a Promotion of Access to Information request, giving it 60 days in total to release the advisories – which it didn’t do. Earlier this month News24 filed an appeal.

On Thursday, when Mkhize’s health department released the documents, it argued, rather defensively, that it had taken almost all the advice.

“There are few advisories (less than 5%) that were not implemented by the department in their entirety,” said the department’s press release.

But a quick read of some the 45 advisories reveals that the government was, at best, painstakingly slow at listening to its experts, even as the economy was deteriorating steeply. The result: an estimated 3-million job losses, widespread hunger and huge tax shortfalls.

The government’s lethargy in taking the doctors’ advice on the lockdown restrictions looks even worse if one considers that so little of the promised R500bn economic stimulus package has been delivered. For example, a key part of the stimulus is a R200bn loan guarantee scheme. But even though it was designed to help an estimated 700,000 businesses, only 10,000 companies had been granted these loans by the beginning of August. And the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme, meant to make up any shortfall in salaries due to Covid-19, was suspended due to fears of fraud.

When it comes to the science, the advisories reveal:

  • As early as May 26, the country’s top scientists argued for all schools, nursery schools and creches to open. They said: “The majority of children display no or mild symptoms and … are at low risk of severe illness or death,” while schools provide the benefits of education and in many cases a meal. They said there needed to be reasonable protocols to protect children and teachers and adult staff. Yet it was only three months later, on August 24, that schools were reopened.
  • Cyclical lockdowns – ones that start and stop – are not worth the harm they cause. Businesses still fear that new restrictions may be imposed. They can take heart from the fact that the scientists advised the government: “The moderate benefit of cyclical lockdowns does not appear to justify the enormous societal and economic costs that would be incurred.”
  • On May 19, scientists told the government how much damage the single focus on a lockdown to counter Covid-19 was causing the treatment of other diseases. The advisories recounted how tests for tuberculosis (TB), SA’s biggest killer, had halved in seven weeks. They read: “The disruption of TB services represents but a single example of the unintended consequences of an unmeasured approach, such as a total lockdown, to mitigate the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
  • Also on May 19, scientists urged the government to move to save lives and livelihoods concurrently, detailing the economic damage caused by lockdown.
  • The advisories said that taxis should not go above 70% capacity, even as the government allowed taxis to go to 100% capacity when they came under pressure from the industry.
  • On July 21, an advisory said that SA had “benefited significantly” from going into lockdown, but despite this, there was widespread community transmission of the virus. It said that SA had one of the highest rates of infections per million people compared to other countries which had embarked on such a severe lockdown early on. This suggests that SA’s severe lockdown had had low impact.
  • That same advisory said that even during the level 5 lockdown, there was already an increase in incremental infections because of the difficulty of “containing the epidemic in crowded low-income spaces”. The lockdown, while making people poorer, didn’t stop the spread in poorer areas.
  • By July 21, scientists advised that the lockdown had no further benefit “as there was such widespread transmission” of Covid-19. It said: “There is no evidence that an attempt to implement a large lockdown at this level of community transmission is effective. It has not been attempted anywhere in the world, and there is no evidence that it would be successful”. Yet, despite that advice, it took the government almost four weeks to lift restrictions. It shifted to stage 2 on August 17.

The excerpts from the advisories quoted above show that while Mkhize is right that the government did listen to the advice often, it didn’t do so speedily, even as the economic damage mounted.


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