President Cyril Ramaphosa's delayed address to the nation, after 20 days of absolute silence while we groaned under lockdown, was an uninspiring event.
Looking tired and dispirited, the president made only two noteworthy points. The first was that the lockdown would be selectively relaxed by the end of May. The second was that the government had failed to meet expectations.
“Where we have disappointed, we will continue to make amends. Where we make mistakes, we will continue to correct them.”
That’s a courageous admission. It’s exceedingly rare for any national leader to own up to fault and culpability.
It’s a pity, then, that Ramaphosa immediately reverted to dissimulating politician mode. Every next government move, he assured us, would continue to be informed by “best available evidence” and by the expertise of the top medical scientists. Projections, he said, would “continue to be “updated and refined”.
We must presumably accept all this on presidential say so, since the government’s natural inclination towards secrecy and control — after a refreshing initial openness over COVID — has been reasserting itself. And that’s a problem because unless the government’s projections can be critically examined, the policies sprouting from them will be increasingly resisted.
Take the government’s modelling of COVID’s likely trajectory in South Africa. We are expected to take this at face value because the assumptions on which projections are made is being kept secret even from those medical scientists who are not in the president’s inner circle of advisers. The exclusion from information includes the likes of the immediate past president of SA’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases.
And then there is the data itself. Government statistics are publicly available according to the number of tests, cases diagnosed, recoveries and deaths. One can further slice them according to age, gender and province.
But there is one obvious omission, that of race. It’s a glaring anomaly in a country where every official statistic — bar personal taxation revenue, for perhaps obvious reasons — is based on racial categories and then endlessly dissected for demographic representativity.
When it comes to the COVID-19 figures, the government’s response will most likely be that it is for this very reason, that they are not racially categorised. It is to avoid stigmatisation and the use of the statistics as a political weapon.
There’s some merit in that argument. We have a history, after all, where HIV infection was once dismissed as undeserving of serious attention because it was a “moffie disease”, afflicting only those degenerate homosexuals.
And when the first South African COVID cases surfaced, much was publicly made of them being whites. The assumption was based on them being locals who had been diagnosed after returning from European holidays. This tenuous — but probably largely accurate — deduction led to the initial belief by many that coronavirus was a “white man’s disease”.
Africans, some reassured themselves, were genetically resistant to the coronavirus and had nothing to fear. Not only was that wrong, the medical scientists responded, but the complacency it reflected would likely accelerate the spread of COVID in black communities.
So one must see the government’s sudden racial sensitivity for what it is. It’s a mistake, foolish and self-defeating, born from arrogance. Withholding information is the government’s default setting.
That is the reason why the government would not release the details of its mathematical modelling of the pandemic. According to a Presidency spokesperson, last week, the secrecy was to avoid “panic and stigma”.
“We don’t want to put these models out to the public as if they are the gospel truth.” In other words, the public is too dumb to understand that a model is not reality.
Taking decisions on our behalf while depriving us of the information on which it is acting, is typical of the African National Congress government’s infuriatingly paternalistic approach. Daddy knows best, don’t fret your little heads about these complicated things.
Complex societies work best when lubricated with the best information available. Democracies, likewise depend on governments allowing a free flow of information and opinion.
The government’s justifications for its secrecy have no traction in science or law. As Professor Landon Myer, of the University of Cape Town‘s school of public health and family medicine, told the Sunday Times an interview, “If there is one massive criticism government, it is a lack of transparency … and details of the mathematical models they are using. The more people look at things, the closer we are to getting it right.”
Public accountability advocate Paul Hoffman was more scathing: “Is the public too stupid to know what’s going on? We live in a participatory democracy and the Constitution enjoins [the government] to be open, accountable and responsible. If they say models cannot be made public, they are in breach of the Constitution on all three grounds.”
Even with the best of intentions, secrecy can be gravely damaging, including to those it ostensibly is protecting. That is potentially the case with ignoring a possible race factor in COVID infections.
In both the United States Kingdom and in the United Kingdom, where the ethnicity of COVID victims is recorded and made publicly available, it has been discovered that African-Americans and people of so-called Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin are over-represented in the infection and mortality figures.
There is now a vigorous debate taking place as to why this is and what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s also forcing a public interrogation around one of a politically fraught matter — the degree to which there might be a genetic predisposition among certain ethnic groups to disease.
Or, more cheerfully for Africa, in resistance. Speculatively, perhaps there is a genetic resilience among African people to COVID, if one considers the admittedly early trajectory of the disease on the continent.
Just a month ago, the World Health Organisation was warning that Africa was shaping up to be the next epicentre of the disease, with an estimated 300,000 deaths this year. This week it cut that to 190,000.
This means there are now fewer deaths predicted for the entire continent than the 240,000 deaths that in March were being expected in SA alone. A group of SA actuaries, who did disclose their modelling assumptions, have cut that to a maximum 88,000 deaths. And the president last night, while not venturing total deaths, said that without lockdown the toll “could have been at least eight times as many” as the 219 deaths that did occur.
That’s right. The official verdict is that lockdown has delayed — not prevented — “at least” 1,752 deaths. What it has done, of course, is give the government the space to mobilise the necessary beds and equipment, which it presumably has now done.
There is nothing unusual or sinister in any of these wildly differing and continually adjusted mortality projections. They are based on the best knowledge available at that moment.
But best knowledge is, as Landon Myer points out, publicly accessible knowledge. So, explain to us the scientific parameters of your projections.
And, while you’re at it, also kindly lay out the logical parameters of your shopping restrictions, such as allowing the sale of “crop-bottoms” but only if they are going to be “worn with boots and leggings”.
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