S African government, scientists at loggerheads over COVID-19 lockdown

Fakir Hassen

Johannesburg, May 18 (PTI) The South African government and leading scientists advising it on the COVID-19 pandemic are at loggerheads over the implementation of the lockdown, now in its 52nd day and at level 4 of a five-level risk-adjusted approach.

The disagreement came as the scientists joined business leaders and labour unions in warning that the delay in easing the restrictions is destroying the economy as millions of jobs are shed and poverty increasing.

A comment in an interview with news website News24.com by Dr Glenda Gray, a member of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on coronavirus, has earned support of other members of the panel.

Gray, who is also chairperson of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and an internationally recognised HIV researcher, called for a complete removal of the lockdown, saying it is not based on “sound scientific advice”.

Gray said instead interventions such as handwashing, wearing masks, social distancing and prohibitions on public gatherings, should be put in place.

Some of Gray’s colleagues on MAC have come out in support of her, citing that a “false impression” was being created about the level of consultation with scientists on the lockdown, the Sunday Times reported.

MAC member Prof Shabir Madhi from Wits University, who chairs its public health committee, said the government was “ill-informed”.

He said MAC was not asked about measures involved in lifting the lockdown. In a webinar earlier in the week, Madhi got huge support when he said the lockdown was flawed.

But Acting Director-General of the Department of Health, Dr Anban Pillay, told the weekly that Gray’s comments were surprising given that implementation was not within MAC’s jurisdiction.

“Gray is a professor in infectious diseases, paediatrics and vaccinology, but not in implementation of a lockdown and easing of lockdowns. In fact, there is no expert on this in the world because we are all learning,' Pillay said.

“But you can’t simply say because you are an expert, you are telling us what to do and we should follow it. Because at the end of the day, she is not accountable, she is just an adviser. It is the government that is accountable, it is the president and the minister who will account to the country,” Pillay said.

Pillay also emphasised that while the committee was made up of leaders in their fields, their mandate was to advise the Minister of Health, who will decide whether to agree or disagree with the advice.

Pillay said up to 90 per cent of the committee recommendation have been adopted almost verbatim.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize also told the weekly that it was 'untrue that we don't take the MAC seriously'.

'We have asked the ministerial advisory committee to advise us on a lot of issues and for each issue they set up a team, and research and deliberate before producing their recommendation. Those advisories come to the minister who makes the decision of how to implement. There is a lot of debate that goes into those final advisories,' Mkhize said.

'In some instances I attend their meetings and they report to me, and MECs sometimes. So if anybody was unhappy with anything, they could have expressed so directly to me,” he said.

MAC chairman Prof Salim Abdool-Karim said none of the about 50 advisories to the Health Department had been rejected.

'In addition, MAC has been working on advisories over the last several days related to 10 issues, including the easing of the lockdown and the alert level regulations,” Abdool-Karim added.

The latest statistics showed that there were 14,355 COVID-19 infections across South Africa, with 261 deaths and 6,478 recoveries. PTI FH RDK RDK