Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GCIS
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GCIS

There’s nothing quite like being gaslighted by your own government.

On the one hand, health minister Zweli Mkhize rolls out the science: #ListenToTheExperts, he touts on Twitter, #ListenToTheDoctor. It’s supposed to be soothing, reassuring, calming: a parade of medical professionals and scientists telling us in dulcet tones how we can protect ourselves in the midst of a pandemic.

On the other, Mkhize refuses to disclose the actual scientific advice he’s receiving.

As Tamar Kahn reported in Business Day on Monday, the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19 has provided the government with about 70 scientific advisories to date. These include briefings on contested terrain, such as the bans on the sale of alcohol and tobacco, as well as less contentious matters, such as antibody testing.

Yet not a single one has been released into the public domain by the minister or his department.

This, Mkhize explained, is because the MAC is but one part of government’s policymaking process, and the scientific advisories may not represent the government’s final position.

By way of example, he referred to the decision to allow taxis to operate at 100% capacity for “short trips” (less than 200km) under what is now apparently “advanced-restricted level 3”. The decision to shoehorn 14 people into a space of 5.4m x 1.8m with windows open just 5cm was, so we’re told, the result of consultations that included the MAC, the department of transport, provincial leaders, taxi associations and, of course, the omnipotent, omnipresent national coronavirus command council.

I bet the liquor industry was surprised to hear that. On Sunday night, the sector was caught as flat-footed as those of us with wine still out on order when President Cyril Ramaphosa reintroduced the ban on alcohol sales with immediate effect.

The issue isn’t actually that there shouldn’t be any restriction on the sale of alcohol. There is sufficient evidence that it puts increased pressure on trauma units to warrant some kind of limitation (though there does seem to have been some convenient conflation of traumas/crimes/murders arising from an increase in movement as the hard lockdown and the booze ban were lifted on June 1).

Likewise, it’s not to suggest that government should only take one set of facts into account in making decisions about Covid-19: it’s in the invidious position of having to balance lives and livelihoods.

Rather, the more important issue, as British freedom of expression organisation Article 19 argued in its May report, “Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the Covid-19 Pandemic”, is that “the right to information is crucial for ensuring public awareness and trust, fighting misinformation, ensuring accountability as well as developing and monitoring implementation of public policies aimed at solving the crisis”. (The report provides a useful overview of the kinds of information that should be publicly available at this time, and why.)

Did anyone read the whole study?

On Monday, Mkhize was at pains to point out that the government hadn’t been held over a barrel by the taxi industry; after sitting down with the taxi associations and explaining the science and the issues at play, they all reached a happy agreement. Coincidentally, it was one in which the taxi associations got exactly what they wanted.

On Twitter, he elaborated on the science, referring to a study by “Matose and Munyaradzi” on the study of TB transmission and air flow in taxis, which found that driving with open windows reduces the risk of transmission. Which is true – only the study he’s presumably referring to, by Munyaradzi Matose and others, found reduced transmission where windows were fully opened in particular configurations – not cracked open just 5cm.

Matose says: “Despite the ventilation capabilities achieved in the study, passengers might not tolerate the fully open window configurations, for example due to discomfort caused by temperature changes, safety concerns, or inclement weather. Overloading would also alter the ventilation rates achieved with the window configurations considered in this study.”

For this reason, Matose recommends the “consideration” of the “potential” of additional protective measures. It’s not clear to me that fabric masks will cut it – and Mkhize hasn’t pointed to any science to suggest this is so.

Considering the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention defines “prolonged exposure” to Covid as upwards of 15 minutes, and “close contact” as being within 1.8m – the width of the Toyota Ses’fikile taxi, which seats four in the back row – this is playing Russian roulette with millions of lives.

Scientists – including some of those on the MAC, speaking in their personal capacities – would seem to suggest the same.

Wits University professor Shabir Madhi expressed his concerns to News24 this week, citing the length of time spent in taxis, multiple exposures (many people take more than one taxi to work and home), and general noncompliance by the tax industry itself.

Another member of the MAC, Prof Francois Venter, called the decision “insane”.

“Everything we talk about – don’t crowd, avoid closed spaces, be quick – are next to impossible. It’s a recipe for transmission.”

If the decision wasn’t made on the basis of science, but the need to ensure the “sustainability of the taxi industry”, as Mkhize hints at in a tweet, then we need to ask why the government can’t get creative with solutions around liquor sales to ensure the sustainability of a sector that reportedly employs 1-million people across the value chain.

The hypocrisy of banning booze

It could start by actually limiting how much alcohol you can buy in one go, for instance. And hike taxes on alcohol, putting that additional revenue into improved health care, or programmes targeting gender-based violence. It could use the police force, currently occupied intercepting illicit cigarette consignments (a pleasant change from checking till slips), to actually enforce alcohol legislation. Or figure out why SA has such a problematic relationship with alcohol in the first place.

But the real issue here is that we are not privy to the scientific basis for government decisions.

As the Article 19 report notes: “Committees or other formal or informal bodies that provide expert advice to the government during the [Covid] crisis should be fully public in their membership and advice.”

This allows for public scrutiny, external accountability, informed debate and, crucially, confidence. “When the public knows what the government is doing to address the pandemic, it builds trust, brings more awareness, and opens dialogue with institutions that will result in better behaviours from society.”

We’re a long way off that, consigned for the moment, to pandemic purgatory.

We still don’t know why 50 people can go to church, or a casino, or a movie, but a family of six can’t meet up for dinner at home (though they can at a restaurant). We don’t know why we’re allowed to walk in a park, but we can’t take a stroll along the beach. Because the government isn’t explaining itself to us – and, perhaps more problematically, it doesn’t think it has to.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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