Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

Now it’s health minister Zweli Mkhize, following the lead of trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel, bemoaning how “unfair” it is that doctors who are part of his own advisory panel have slammed the phased lockdown as “unscientific”.

Mkhize’s comments came as the government’s lockdown edifice, already weakened by a series of senseless rules, began to seriously crumble over the weekend. At the same time, the number of new infections rose by a record 1,160 on Sunday to reach 15,515.

On Saturday, Dr Glenda Gray, the chairperson of the ministerial advisory committee’s research committee, described the phased ending to the lockdown as “nonsensical and unscientific”.

Gray has serious clout: besides having led the first clinical trials for an HIV vaccine in SA, and having trained at Columbia University and Cornell University, she’s also the head of the SA Medical Research Council, and has had a stellar career

“This strategy is not based in science and is completely unmeasured. [It’s] almost as if someone is sucking regulations out of their thumb and implementing rubbish, quite frankly,” she told News24. “In the face of a young population, we refuse to let people out. We make them exercise for three hours a day and then complain that there’s congestion in this time. We punish children and kick them out of school and we deny them education. For what? Where is the scientific evidence for that?”

Rather, she said, scrap the lockdown, and prioritise non-pharmaceutical interventions, including social distancing, wearing masks and prohibiting gatherings.

It was a devastating critique — and other doctors agreed. Prof Marc Mendelson, head of infectious diseases and HIV medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, said: “Lockdown in its current form is doing more harm than good.”

Another member of the ministerial advisory committee told the Sunday Times that it’s wrong to think the doctors recommended extending the lockdown: “We never had discussions on banning alcohol and cigarettes — no single scientist would have supported the cigarette ban. We don’t know who’s advising the government.”

What was interesting was the fallout from the doctors’ comments.

According to News24, those medical experts “faced a hard-nosed dressing-down from health officials” on Saturday night.

Mkhize’s director-general, Dr Anban Pillay, said that since the economic regulations weren’t part of their mandate, responsibility or expertise, “I don’t understand why they would think they needed to be speaking out about it”. 

That’s frightening for two central reasons.

First, those people who are experts on the economic impact, namely the economists, have already described those rules as daft. So, now that the scientists are saying that the rules on how you wear your T-shirts have no scientific or medical value, it weakens the case for keeping the strict lockdown even more.

The second chilling aspect of Pillay’s statement is that what he appears to be saying to the scientists is, keep quiet and toe the department line. That’s an especially dangerous road because you can be sure that anyone who stifles dissent to present a façade of “unity” is up to no good.

Of course, had Mkhize taken South Africans into his confidence and revealed the models around Covid-19 (which he hasn’t done), more people would have understood the rationale for a continued lockdown. But in the absence of that, “Just trust us” doesn’t cut it.

This fallout also illustrates that while we’re in the midst of a media meltdown, the news media is still a critical institution for holding the government accountable. On this, News24 has done well: it’s been on top of the science, hasn’t fallen prey to confirmation bias on either side of the lockdown debate, and has done the thing that distinguishes journalists from social media chatter: real reporting, speaking to people who are on the frontline. Many other media outlets have done the same.

The point is, now that it’s the doctors rattling their sabres, the lockdown has reached a turning point.

With that in mind, Mkhize and President Cyril Ramaphosa would do well to read this article in The New York Times on how pandemics end. 

Here’s a spoiler: a pandemic doesn’t end when a government declares it over. Rather, it ends “not because a disease has been vanquished, but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease”.

The article provides a fascinating exploration of what happened during history’s plagues — the Black Death, Ebola, smallpox and the Spanish flu. As Yale historian Naomi Rogers warns about Covid-19: “We may be in a moment when people are just saying: ‘That’s enough.’”

It’s just that sort of inflection point that Mkhize and his boss, Ramaphosa, ought to bear in mind.

African excellence, mostly

In The New Yorker, the excellent Jina Moore writes how many African nations have been ahead of many Western nations in tackling the virus.

The magazine suggests that some African countries – including SA, Rwanda, Uganda and Botswana – have been better at managing the disease than the West.

“While the worst-performing countries anticipate a disease curve that looks like those in Europe or the US, the African countries where the response has been better, faster, and smarter may manage to stay ahead of it,” it says.

Which, of course, doesn’t excuse the bone-headedness in some countries.

Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, has been peddling his herbal tea as a “cure”, while Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, has proved to be a danger to his own citizens, refusing to release statistics of infections to the extent that nobody really believes the numbers, as Al Jazeera reports

Magufuli has even urged people to go to churches since prayers “can vanquish” the virus. The result is that Tanzanian hospitals now risk being overrun, as the BBC reports

New poser in school debate

Lastly, will the kids really be all right? Even as we’re debating how to open up countries, there have been disturbing reports about a “mysterious ailment” that has appeared in children who’ve been affected by Covid-19.

This is disturbing precisely because, as Jane Burns of the University of California San Diego told Wired Magazine: “There’s generalised fear and anxiety, because we told people the good news is that this virus doesn’t do anything to children. And now we’re saying: ‘Actually, here’s a new thing.’” 

So does this change the thesis?

Not really. “Among those who develop this new condition, even in its more severe form, most are doing just fine with treatment,” says Wired. Most kids still have mild or undetectable conditions.

It illustrates that again, if you take a binary view of what’s “wrong” and “right” in this brand-new epidemic, where the science is shifting all the time, you’re making a fool of yourself. The science and the data shouldn’t be an inconvenient obstacle to your preconceived opinion.

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, click here.