Sunday Times

‘We want to avoid Covid-19 panic’

Presidency confirms informatio­n is kept from public for fear of stigma, causing alarm


● The government has admitted to holding back informatio­n from the public on the Covid-19 pandemic, saying it is doing so to avoid panic.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokespers­on, Khusela Diko, conceded this yesterday on inquiries by the Sunday Times, after leading experts questioned why Covid-19 modelling data is being kept under wraps.

The move to keep the data out of the public eye comes after an earlier model on which the strict lockdown was based was heavily criticised.

It projected thousands more infections and deaths than SA has experience­d to date. As at Friday, 9,420 people in SA have been infected with Covid-19, and 186 have died.

“We don’t want to put these models out to the public as if they are the gospel truth,” Diko said.

“There is an element where we want to avoid panic in communitie­s, and we’re also mindful of the stigma of the virus.”

She conceded that “we need to allow people to feel more in control. That is perhaps something that is not being done as well as we could, because when people are armed with informatio­n, they feel like they are taking charge of their lives rather than just receiving info from the government.”

Diko said Ramaphosa visited the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research “to view the CSIR system, which can drill down to street level and allow for projection­s. The CSIR raised that these are fluid, and we don’t want a situation where we put out informatio­n when it changes by the minute.”

She added they were working on ways to better communicat­e with the public.

Experts said the move to limit the flow of scientific data on the pandemic means the government will make its decision on whether to reopen the economy further based on data that South Africans are not privy to.

The data will include epidemiolo­gical models drawn up by leading scientists, actuaries and mathematic­ians tracking how effective the lockdown has been.

Constituti­onal and medical experts are calling for greater transparen­cy, especially because the rate of easing the lockdown is crucial to the future of an economy that has been brought to its knees.

But those working with the data confirmed to the Sunday Times this week they had been told to keep it confidenti­al.

With infection rates soaring this week and poor people starving because they cannot work, the president and the national command council face decisions that will affect many lives. These are challenges leaders across the world are grappling with, as many countries begin to ease lockdowns in a bid to revive dying economies.

With economic data for April beginning to show the devastatin­g impact of the first full month, Business for SA has urged the government to move quickly to level 2.

Modelling by the private-sector umbrella group formed to fight Covid-19 shows that if level 4 continues for a month, with a gradual move to lower levels, the economy will contract 14.5% in 2020. A swift move to level 2 would reduce the contractio­n to 10% and cut the number of formal sector jobs at risk from 2-million to less than half that. At level 2, 97% of the workforce is allowed to work.

The decision to keep the data confidenti­al has been widely slated by independen­t experts who say that the more eyes on the data, the more quickly it can be refined and improved.

Wits University health economist Alex van den Heever said: “Data can easily be skewed. Our entire response to Covid-19 is too dependent on government acting on its own. The danger with not releasing data properly is that there is no verificati­on of the level of the outbreak.”

He warned that if it is necessary for people to behave in certain ways, they have to be kept informed. “Public disclosure enables people to make their own decisions in regard to their personal prevention strategies.”

Covid-19 ministeria­l advisory committee chairperso­n, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, said that he was not well placed to comment on what the projection­s, and how they are impacted by eased lockdown restrictio­ns.

“I do not do mathematic­al modelling, better ask the modellers about the projection­s. As an epidemiolo­gist, I analyse the available data and trends,” he said.

Health spokespers­on Popo Maja said that although uncertaint­y about transmissi­on rates at the community level remain, as well as when the curve will steepen, the accuracy of prediction­s is increasing daily with the data that floods in from the field “and the model is being updated regularly”.

An early model, produced by National Institute for Communicab­le Diseases (NICD) and the South African Centre for Epidemiolo­gical Modelling and Analysis (Sacema), which predicted between 87,900 and 351,000 deaths if the government did nothing to stop the spread, was widely criticised.

Former NICD head, professor Shabir Madhi, described it as “flawed and illogical” and said the prediction­s did not reconcile with data from the field. The prediction­s were defended by the NICD and Sacema, which said they were based on the scarce data available at the time and were accurate.

Those close to the current modelling project — overseen by the NICD and run by the South African Covid Modelling Consortium — said that projection­s are easily misconstru­ed by the public.

The NICD’s Dr Harry Moultrie said this week that the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic is not cast in stone, because of the state’s risk-adjusted strategy.

“More recent models include a dynamic

transmissi­on model, which is regularly updated to incorporat­e new informatio­n and data,” he said.

Asked why the model cannot be made public, Moultrie said: “The model is still being refined. It is not ready for release yet.”

A Wits physicist, professor Bruce Mellado — part of a multidisci­plinary team that makes prediction­s on the effect of the virus — said revealing the exact numbers they plot is unnecessar­y.

“We have a robust mathematic­al apparatus with which we can estimate the level of the spread with each level of lockdown.”

He said that according to their calculatio­ns, SA could control the spread of the virus through lockdown measures, as long as South Africans toe the line.

But health experts said the secrecy of the modelling goes against establishe­d principles of testing evidence by peer review.

Professor Landon Myer, of the University of Cape Town’s school of public health and family medicine, called for transparen­cy.

“If there is one massive criticism government is coming in for, it is a lack of transparen­cy about who is getting tested, why they are getting tested and details of the mathematic­al models they are using.

“The more people look at things, the closer we are to getting it right.”

African Health Research Institute deputy director professor Thumbi Ndung’u said that based on the September-peak model, it is clear SA is “not out of the woods”.

“You definitely do not want that because it means infections are on a continuous upwards trajectory with no sign of them coming down, and could indicate that government’s strategy, which seems to have worked well for now, is not actually working that well.”

Wits health economist Van den Heever said what the country is being told does not make sense.

“Given how early the country locked down, SA should be in the situation South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand are currently at, in terms of virtually eliminatin­g any new infections. We intervened early and started to bring down the infections, but now we see a rise in new infections. What this shows is our lockdown actually had no effect on new community infections.”

Constituti­onal law expert Wesley Hayes said: “I fear that should the government fail to act transparen­tly, the good work undertaken by our president at the start of this state of disaster is and will be undone.”

Public accountabi­lity advocate Paul Hoffman said withholdin­g the informatio­n was unconstitu­tional.

“Is the public too stupid to know what’s going on? What the department needs to understand is that we live in a participat­ory democracy, and the constituti­on enjoins them to be open, accountabl­e and responsibl­e,” he said. “If they say models cannot be made public, they are in breach of the constituti­on on all three grounds.” — Additional reporting by Claire Keeton

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