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'Governments let us down'- Scientists lash politicians on second anniversary of hard lockdown

Wits University symposium highlights poor decision-making and lack of trust

27 March 2022 - 00:00
Scientists have been brutal in their criticism of the government's handling of Covid-19 since the announcement of the hard lockdown two years ago.
Scientists have been brutal in their criticism of the government's handling of Covid-19 since the announcement of the hard lockdown two years ago.
Image: 123RF/pitinan

Thursday marked the second anniversary of President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement of the Covid-19 hard lockdown, a development widely accepted at the time as the inevitable consequence of expert advice and pragmatic governance.

Two years later, scientists remain highly regarded for their role in combating Covid-19 but politicians have egg on their faces after a multitude of scandals and failings, compounded by revelations this week that they are increasingly ignoring scientific advice.

The latest attack on the government came at a Wits University symposium assessing SA's preparedness for the pandemic and the way it was handled.

The discussion was based on the book Pandemics and Healthcare: Principles, Processes and Practice, with many of the authors present to share their views.

Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said: “What worked during Covid-19 was science and research. We saw scientists and researchers collaborating so well with each other.

“What didn’t work was the lack of trust in the government. Both in SA and globally, governments let us down. They were not transparent and nimble and able to adapt as things changed. As we move forward, hopefully these are things we can address.”

Bioethicist Ames Dhai, who edited the book with fellow Wits academics Daynia Ballot and Martin Veller, said all countries were unprepared for Covid-19.

“Even those with the best run healthcare systems actually lacked adequate structures, but what really irked us was the political response.”

SA experienced “poor and inconsistent messaging, and illogical decision-making”, she said. “When our president announced the first lockdown, he had consulted widely with business and academics, but not with the poor on the ground.”


12,996: Confirmed active Covid cases on Thursday

May 28 2020: The last time SA had fewer than 13,000 active Covid cases 

This showed how political leaders are “socially removed from the people they profess to govern”.

Wits dean of health Shabir Madhi said decisions by the government showed it was  oblivious to SA's realities.

“We failed to prevent infections and deaths, and destroyed the economy even further. We have among the highest unemployment in the world, and who was affected the most? The poorest of the poor.”

About 700,000 pupils from the poorest households dropped out of school in 2020 and 2021.

Alex van den Heever, a social security expert at Wits, said SA failed dismally when it came to “coherent decision-making under circumstances of uncertainty”.

An “insane” moment was when the government said it needed “further evidence” before commencing vaccinations, and the PPE procurement scandal was “100% predictable” because of “political appointments” that prevent accountability.

“I was in discussions with the Treasury to say please protect those procurement processes and they said they couldn’t,” he said. “Much of SA's health system and the whole state has been wired in this way.”

Corruption in the “top echelons of government ... can only happen when capturability is built into the system”.

Epidemiologist Peter Nyasulu said a positive sign was that “lockdown measures were informed by information from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases” and this “showed the value of surveillance”.

Modellers had developed short-term and long-term models but initially SA was “misled by the caseload in Europe”.

However, “as the pandemic matured we could use more information from our own context and make better predictions that could guide decision-making at a higher level”.

He said a persistent problem that has not been solved is the “challenge of getting people in the country and on the continent to be vaccinated”.

He said this resulted from “a storm of fake information on social media”.

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