John Steenhuisen: Information lockdown - is government hiding inconvenient truths?

A Covid response based on secrecy is not in South Africa’s best interest, says the writer. (iStock)
A Covid response based on secrecy is not in South Africa’s best interest, says the writer. (iStock)

If government is open about its reasoning behind lockdown regulations, it will have more incentive and assistance to make them rational, and to clearly link them to reducing transmission.

The government has finally allowed the disclosure of some projections drawn from the epidemiological model that has apparently guided its Covid-response decisions.

This is welcome, but much more transparency is needed on data and decision-making. Government must start playing open cards. If they are working according to an explicit strategy, they must share it.

Otherwise, it is fair to conclude that South Africa is flying blind. 

If it isn’t bad enough that government is withholding data from the public, they have also denied it. Dishonesty piled on secrecy. Why? Possibly, because the data hides some inconvenient truths. 

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize claimed this weekend: "I don’t know of anyone who has actually come to us and said give us this information and we refused. We have been so transparent and upfront with everything that we haven’t got anything to hide."

This is simply not the truth.  

The DA has repeatedly submitted detailed requests for information, including eight PAIA applications (under the Promotion of Access to Information Act) which have so far gone unanswered. 

The approach has been to get expert advisors to sign non-disclosure agreements and to spoon-feed the public with tidbits now and then - never enough to draw any useful conclusions.

The Presidency has admitted to withholding information, saying it is "to avoid panic in communities. The secrecy is condescending and counter-productive, aimed at saving face rather than lives. 

Possible inconvenient truth number 1: More recent mortality estimates, terrible as they are, do not warrant an indefinite hard national lockdown.

The DA has long requested the NICD model, and its assumptions and recommendations.

This should be open to public scrutiny. The Imperial College model, on which UK policymakers based their decision to lockdown the UK economy, has been debunked by leading computer scientists as being "fundamentally unreliable".

People need more confidence in the model that has led government to mothball most of South Africa’s economy, indefinitely. We need to know its assumptions.

A model is only as useful as its inputs are accurate - garbage in, garbage out.

We need confidence around Covid death predictions, and timing of the peak.

If government were confident of its model, it would share it. 

The last two months of case data holds valuable insights, yet citizens are not privy to it.

The DA has requested it be made public, including SA Covid death data by age, HIV and comorbidity status.

Australia’s data suggests that for healthy people aged 0-70, Covid-19 is comparable in risk to normal flu.

If this is the finding for South Africa too, it would surely have important implications for policy-making going forward.

The DA believes that government should focus its resources on protecting the high-risk group, while many more low-risk people should be back at work, supporting their families and generating tax revenue to support those without work. 

On Monday, Ramaphosa claimed: "We have consistently maintained that we rely on scientific, economic and empirical data when it comes to making decisions and formulating regulations around our coronavirus response".

Yet this data is not being shared.

And it’s anyway hard to believe this statement when the government has tried to silence its own scientific advisors who are speaking out against the lockdown and to stop the media reporting on this. 

Possible inconvenient truth number 2: Inadequate data collection in 8 out of 9 provinces means "smart lockdown" can’t be pursued. 

An extremely powerful, targeted intervention to slow the spread would be the proactive identification and localised containment of transmission hotspots ("smart lockdown").

Yet this requires knowledge of where the virus is flaring up, which requires effective testing with rapid turnaround times, and a government willing to be honest and open with the data. 

"The only province that I see such a strategy occurring is in the Western Cape."

So says Wits University professor Alex van den Heever, who is part of a group of experts who have been advising the government.

The Western Cape has conducted 1 211 tests per 100 000 citizens, far more than the other provinces, where test rates range between 138 and 837 per 100 000 citizens. 

Commenting on the Western Cape’s data, Van den Heever says: "The upward trajectory we are seeing at the moment is largely a consequence of the smart testing and targeting strategy of the Western Cape, which is picking up more new infections.

"The other provinces are not doing that, which means they’re not picking up infections which may be there. The Western Cape is adopting the only strategy that may turn the epidemic down. The other provinces are not producing the numbers. We don’t really know what’s going on. Therefore we don’t know the true trajectory of the epidemic."

It will be a deep and unacceptable irony if other provinces are "rewarded" for poor data collection and reporting with a move to level 3 while the Western Cape is "punished" for establishing and revealing the truth about the spread of infections. 

Possible inconvenient truth number 3: The true trajectory of the virus is unknown, therefore a risk-adjusted approach is nonsensical.

Government has yet to answer this question openly and truthfully: What exactly will trigger a move to level 3, since a rise in infections is inevitable, and since the extent of the spread is unknown in 8 out of 9 provinces.

The obvious conclusion is that government itself does not know and that South Africa is flying blind.

Once again, garbage in, garbage out. Government should either adjust its testing strategy in line with expert advice, or abandon all pretence of running a risk-adjusted strategy over the coming years. 

Possible inconvenient truth number 4: Government largely squandered the opportunity to build healthcare readiness during the hard lockdown. 

Government has also ignored the DA’s request for data on the preparedness of hospitals around the country.

But from what we can tell, it seems the opportunity to prepare a health response has been largely squandered in all provinces other than Gauteng and the Western Cape. 

To conclude, a Covid response based on secrecy is not in South Africa’s best interest.

If government is open about its reasoning behind lockdown regulations, it will have more incentive and assistance to make them rational, and to clearly link them to reducing transmission.

Likewise, if people know the reasoning behind covid regulations, they will have more incentive to comply. Government should start playing open cards with South Africa, even if all they are holding is a pair of twos. 

- John Steenhuisen, is the interim leader of the DA 

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