President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on government’s additional extraordinary measures to contain and combat the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on government’s additional extraordinary measures to contain and combat the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

On Monday, when President Cyril Ramaphosa stood up to announce a 21-day national shutdown, there was panic in his eyes. The president, renowned for his serenity, spoke of the possibility of "hundreds of thousands" of coronavirus infections, and plans to bring in the army to ensure the lockdown is enforced.

Ramaphosa appeared presidential, and this crisis has strengthened his legitimacy. Even political rivals are backing him. It makes you shudder to imagine what would have happened had his predecessor been in charge: the Gupta-run VR Immunology would have scooped the tender for Covid-19 tests, appointments to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases would be decided in Saxonwold, and infection rates would be announced at a daily New Age breakfast.

But while Ramaphosa seems in control, this isn’t exactly true. Confirmed cases are rocketing — from 274, to 402, to 554 in three days — and there aren’t enough testing kits in the country, which means people don’t know if they’ve got Covid-19, and aren’t being stopped from spreading it. This is a problem since the evidence from South Korea suggests the one way to stem a pandemic is to test widely and ruthlessly. The lesson from South Korea, as The New York Times put it, is "swift action, widespread testing and contact tracing, and critical support from citizens".

Testing is ramping up — it’s now 3,500 tests a day — but it’s behind the curve. Health minister Zweli Mkhize says he expects by mid-April, SA will be conducting 30,000 tests a day.

The question is whether the NICD, under-resourced and understaffed, can keep its hand on the pulse of the infections or whether it’ll be swamped. As it stands, SA is now at the stage where clusters of outbreaks are happening in the general population, and the growth is scary.

This is why Ramaphosa imposed a lockdown, even though it’ll strangle an economy already gasping for breath. You don’t want to be the president who (and here, we’re looking at you, Boris Johnson) carelessly sacrifices lives because you’ve got a mate in immunology who made a great case for "herd immunity" over a pint.

But if these are the challenges, it only becomes more imperative for Mkhize to improve his communication. He has an anxious population, so there can’t be days with no update on infections.

Last week, News24 reported that the government had effectively "gagged epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists and other experts on Covid-19", instructing that all requests for comment should be directed to the NICD.

Oddly, the NICD denied this, saying it has "no authority" to make such a call — which shows how garbled the government’s messaging is.

The fact is, Mkhize’s spokesperson Lwazi Manzi had confirmed that "all communication should be centralised" to just a few people. This was the FM’s experience too, when we posed questions to Gauteng’s health department.

As Wits University’s Schalk Mouton says, if you gag the experts on virology, epidemiology and infectious diseases, you’ll inevitably get some crackpot pseudo-expert popping up to fill the space. "When you start gagging scientists in a time of disaster, you are going down a slippery slope. Who will be the next to get gagged?"

It’s an important question, especially as the army starts rolling into our suburbs, and a possible state of emergency looms. So far, Ramaphosa has acted as a statesman befitting his office. He realises what’s at stake. But he can’t afford to indulge the more autocratic-minded officials in his midst — or the crisis will become about so much more than Covid-19.

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