Adriaan Basson: The truth behind THAT interview with Prof Glenda Gray

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Professor Glenda Gray.
Professor Glenda Gray.
Bongiwe Gumede

For the past two weeks, the US has been going gaga over a viral video titled Plandemic by discredited virologist Dr Judy Mikovits.

The 26-minute video essentially claims the coronavirus was invented by a "circular cabal" to boost the profits of big business and pharmaceutical companies. The video was shared more than 2.5 million times before it was deleted by social platforms.

False news and disinformation have become as potent as the coronavirus itself over the past few months since the global crisis started.

It is a normal instinct of humans to want to know who to blame when our lives are affected negatively. Quacks like Mikovits exploit this human urge with their false conspiracies to rake in clicks and dollars.

Over the past few days, we've seen our own physician going viral in the form of Professor Glenda Gray after comments she made to News24 last week.

Judging by the reaction of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the acting director-general, Anban Pillay, and some commentators to Gray's interview, you would have been forgiven for wondering whether Gray is South Africa's version of Mikovits.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are the facts, as I see them.

She speaks her mind

Last Friday, News24 interviewed her after we tried to secure an interview with her for a while. As the president and CEO of the Medical Research Council, and chairperson of the research subcommittee on the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) for the coronavirus, Gray is an extremely important voice in the management of the biggest health crisis this country has faced in many years.

Although there are 51 academics who serve on the MAC to advise Mkhize, Gray has been presented to the media as the most senior member alongside Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the chairperson. To use a political metaphor, she could be described as the MAC's deputy president.

She is a world-renowned researcher on HIV transmission and played a fundamental role in challenging and overturning the Mbeki-era's Aids denialism.

Gray also has another quality to complement her academic skills: she speaks her mind. And thank God for this. If people like Gray didn't raise their voices during the Manto Tshabalala-Msimang years, we may still have been prescribing garlic and beetroot to HIV-positive mothers.

When Gray agreed to the interview, we were overjoyed and asked her the hard questions. She answered honestly. When our news editors briefed me about what she had said, I immediately knew the big impact the story would have.

Knowing that the story would cause massive fallout, I had to answer a few questions. Was the story newsworthy? Certainly yes. Gray is not a GP from the suburbs (with all due respect to GPs from the suburbs). What she says matters and is deserving of publicity.

Was the story in the public interest? Most definitely yes. The government's decision to shut down the economy and implement a hard lockdown of five weeks, followed by a "smart" lockdown, has had a lasting impact on the lives of millions of people.

National Treasury tells us that up to seven million people could lose their jobs because of the lockdown. Millions of children are not eating because the government-sponsored school feeding scheme shut down with the schools.

I saw the hunger in the eyes of the children of Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats when I visited a community feeding scheme last week. The lockdown has taken away their only hot meal of the day.

It is not only Gray who is worried about the impact of the lockdown on food security. The World Food Programme has warned of a "hunger pandemic" caused by Covid-19 lockdowns.

If one of THE top scientists advising the government says the risk-adjusted or levels strategy is wrong and should end, it has massive implications. 

Our reporters typed up their notes and sent questions to the department of health to respond to Gray's comments. The department's response was captured fully in our article.

We also spoke to three more members of the MAC to test Gray's comments: Karim himself; Dr Ian Sanne and Professor Marc Mendelson. They agreed with her on some comments and differed on others. All of this was captured in the interview.

We showed Gray her quotes before publication. Twice. She was content.

In the interview, she made a number of important points that got lost in the ad hominem attacks on her and News24 this week.

  • She supported the initial lockdown to slow down the spread of the virus to buy time to ready the health system. She said this was largely achieved. In a subsequent interview, she again expressed her support of the lockdown.
  • She criticised the continuation of a phased lockdown system (the risk-adjusted or levels strategy) because, according to her, it was nonsensical and unscientific. In a subsequent interview, after Mkhize lashed her in a statement, Gray said she had always supported the lockdown. When I asked her on Saturday if this contradicts her first interview, she said she was no longer allowed to speak to the media.
  • She criticised lockdown regulations like the closure of schools, limited exercising hours and which clothes could be sold, and said scientists should have been consulted on these.
  • She advocated non-pharmaceutical interventions like washing hands and physical distancing (Mkhize refers to these as behavioural changes).
  • She criticised the government for not delivering sufficient water and food to poor households during the lockdown.
  • She is not alone in many of these criticisms. Mkhize himself told the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) this week the lockdown wasn't sustainable.

Many fellow scientists, like Karim and Professor Shabir Madhi (who also serves on the MAC), have expressed criticism about the government's approach in recent weeks.

None of them unleashed the wrath of Mkhize in the way he responded to Gray. It's safer not to speculate about the reasons for this.

Gray's biggest mistake was her quote that the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto was "seeing children with malnutrition for the first time… We have not seen malnutrition for decades and so we are seeing it for the first time in the hospital", she told my colleague (my emphasis).

Mkhize corrected her: cases of malnutrition (he didn't distinguish between adults and children) were actually going down year-on-year.

Gray has since asked News24 to add a clarification: "Concerns were raised in the first week of May 2020 regarding the number of admissions for acute malnutrition, which appeared to be on the increase. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital still sees admissions for malnutrition. The increase in the cases seen in the first week of May needs to be closely monitored."

News24 has submitted an official request to the Gauteng health department for the number of malnutrition cases at this hospital. We will report on it fully if we receive a response.

Some of the criticism levelled at News24 this week was that we should steer away from reporting on squabbles or divisions between role players like Gray and Mkhize. I have a fundamental problem with this argument.

Not reporting on dissenting voices like that of Gray and others in a time of crisis, opens the way for authoritarians to do as they please. Our duty is to tell the public what is really going on; not to paper over the obvious cracks in service of a false national solidarity.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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