Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail

Dr Zweli Mkhize and his former acting director-general, Anban Pillay, have only themselves to blame if their apparent attempt to strong-arm Prof Glenda Gray into silence backfires.

Just a month ago, the headlines were all about how “political stardom” awaited Mkhize, with Covid-19 being “a golden opportunity for him to shine”.

Now, his department is facing a backlash after Mkhize described Gray’s criticism of SA’s risk-adjusted lockdown as “devoid of truth”, and Pillay asked Gray’s employer, the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), to “investigate her”.

Suddenly, the issue has spiralled, touching on just how intolerant politicians are of public criticism around their Covid-19 strategy, and whether they’re getting the right advice on easing the lockdown, while the economy craters in the background.

By Sunday night, 249 doctors, scientists, academics and policy experts had signed a “statement of support for professor Glenda Gray and the principle of academic freedom of speech”.

It reads: “We condemn the specific threat made against professor Gray for expressing her opinion in public, which is totally out of step with the public pronouncements made by the president, welcoming criticism.”

Embarrassingly for President Cyril Ramaphosa, the letter called on the government to “engage openly with [alternative] views”.

Of course, Mkhize and Pillay shouldn’t be surprised, given their target.

As Time magazine said of Gray in 2017, when it picked her as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet: “Thanks in part to her work on mother-to-child transmission, the number of babies born with HIV has dropped from 600,000 a year to 150,000.” 

She also happens to be the chair of the research committee of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC), which is advising Mkhize’s department on the strategy to tackle Covid-19.

The flashpoint was comments that Gray made to News24 a week ago, in which she described the phased lifting of the lockdown as “nonsensical and unscientific”, adding that children were getting admitted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital for malnutrition.

Mkhize said it was “at the least, devoid of truth” that scientists had been sidelined and that malnutrition was increasing in SA’s hospitals.

But having made his point, perhaps Mkhize should have left it at that.

Instead, as GroundUp reported, Pillay wrote to the SAMRC asking it to “investigate” Gray for making “false allegations” which “cause confusion in the media and are likely to erode public support for behavioural change”.

In what appeared to be an implied threat, Pillay said that the SAMRC, of which Gray is the CEO, “is an entity of the national department of health”. In other words, “our dissatisfaction should bother you as the SAMRC’s directors”.

Pillay’s letter sparked a volley of criticism. In a biting opinion piece in City Press on Sunday, Aslam Dasoo, a doctor and ANC veteran, described Pillay’s parting shot as a “foul and silly rant against her and others”.

Dasoo said that if you consider that response, “we begin to understand why, on his and his fellow travellers’ watch for over 15 years, our once formidable public health service is in a state of decrepitude. They should be in the dock, not her.” 

GroundUp editor Nathan Geffen said that if Pillay succeeded in ousting Gray, “it will likely damage the morale of the institution for a long time to come [and] will alienate leading public health experts, many of whom are sympathetic to Gray, from government”. 

‘We’re not bullying her’

On Sunday Pillay, who stepped away from his post as acting director-general last week, told the FM that this matter has “been twisted in a direction we didn’t intend”.

He says: “Nowhere in that letter did I suggest that criticism should be suppressed or that professor Gray should be gagged. We only took issue with the false allegations she made.”

Does he see how this could have come across as bullying her into silence?

“We’re not bullying professor Gray. I’m not sure how you could see it as bullying — we’re just reporting her to her employer. We’re not wielding any power at the MRC, we’re just asking that she be investigated for the false statements she made.”

Pillay reiterates that Gray’s claim that the scientists weren’t being listened to by the government is false.

But quizzed about this, he immediately concedes that these same scientists weren’t even asked about how to lift the lockdown. “It’s true that they haven’t been asked about how the lockdown is being lifted. But this isn’t just a medical question — the regulations were also implemented to serve an economic purpose.”

But isn’t this the nub of the issue?

The lockdown was instituted precisely to remedy a medical problem: how to reduce Covid-19 infections. Surely the medical experts should have input into how that lockdown plays out? And if they aren’t being listened to, well then … they’re not being listened to.

Not so, says Pillay. For one thing, the MAC hadn’t provided any input on lifting the lockdown when Gray spoke to the press, he says.

“What expertise does professor Gray have on lockdowns anyway? Why should we consult with her or the other doctors about that? If the regulations talk about open-toed shoes, why is that a matter for us to discuss at the ministerial advisory council?”

Well, the most obvious answer is that if the doctors say some regulations are pointless and provide no health benefit, this should influence the trajectory of the lockdown. Unless the politicians have forgotten what the lockdown was meant to achieve in the first place.

Pillay responds: “Politicians are aware of the objective. [But] we don’t ask the medical professionals about each step. We don’t ask them what products should be sold or not.”

Well, perhaps the government should. Maybe then there’d be fewer ludicrous rules, like the ban (since reversed) on e-commerce and things like open-toed shoes.

In fact, if there’s anything that has “eroded public support” for the lockdown — terminology used by Pillay in his letter — it’s exactly these pointless rules imposed by his government colleagues.

Asked if he agrees that some of the more ridiculous regulations have undermined the lockdown, Pillay is diplomatic. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘ridiculous’. I would say it’s been a learning curve. There have been problems with some of them, so we’ve all learnt lessons.”

Indeed. Still, it seems from Mkhize and Pillay’s response to Gray that what they wanted was for her to have a quiet word with them behind closed doors, to avoid this becoming a public matter.

Duty to explain

Rather controversially, Pillay argues that Gray’s public statement risked eroding public support precisely because people “don’t understand nuances of a debate like this”.

He says: “The wider public needs simple answers. They read the top line of an article, so all they’ll see is that people aren’t listening to the scientists, so they are not going to comply with any advice, like wearing a mask — they don’t understand the technical details.”

This again underscores one of the failings of the government’s response to the pandemic: it hasn’t trusted its citizens with enough information, and it hasn’t trusted them to act like adults.

“It’s not about [treating people as] adults,” says Pillay, “but what the average person takes away from an article.”

It’s a debatable point. But it is alarming that many people don’t seem to understand why this is an important issue, and why Gray did the country a service by speaking out.

Yet, as News24 editor Adriaan Basson eloquently writes here, it’s vital that this information is in the public domain.

“Not reporting on dissenting voices like that of Gray and others in a time of crisis opens the way for authoritarians to do as they please. Our duty is to tell the public what is really going on; not to paper over the obvious cracks in service of a false national solidarity,” he writes.

And, it has to be pointed out that Gray isn’t alone. Other scientists on Mkhize’s advisory committee agree with her that they’re being sidelined. 

It’s a depressing reminder that, as much as Mkhize did exceedingly well in the early phases of the pandemic, he is a politician. And politicians, as we all know, are hard-wired to treat criticism as anathema, despite the lip service about “embracing” it.

Certainly, as the 249 signatories to the petition illustrate, Mkhize and Pillay miscalculated when they leant on the SAMRC to “investigate” Gray. If it came down to who you’re more likely to trust, I’d imagine most people would pick her over the politicians any day of the week.

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.

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