Information squeeze: Covid-19 scientists, experts in SA silenced as government centralises communication


Government has effectively gagged epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists and other experts on Covid-19 with an instruction that all requests for comment about the state of the pandemic, the virus itself and its spread should be directed to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Several senior and experienced scientists told News24 directly that they were requested not to speak to the media and to direct all communications to the NICD.

The Ministry of Health confirmed this, saying that communications around the coronavirus needed to be "tightened" and that experts needed to be left alone to do their work.

This means that, for the most part, with a few exceptions, only government’s version of the spread of the virus is reaching the public. 

This is amid a sharp rise of reported cases over the last 48 hours. As of Wednesday morning, the Department of Health confirmed 116 cases. That figure stood at 62 yesterday morning and 85 last night.

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Very few sources have broken ranks to talk to the media on the record. In many instances, the same sources are being interviewed across various media platforms.

Senior academics and researchers have expressed frustration to News24 that not enough information is getting out to the public as a result of this. Several senior and experienced scientists confirmed that they were requested not to speak to the media and to direct all communications to the NICD.

Government wants to get rid of 'the noise'

Ministry of Health spokesperson Lwazi Manzi told News24 that the government had decided that all communication should be centralised to just a few voices: ministers, deputy ministers, MECs and, sometimes, the presidency.

This was to ensure there was a single line of communication regarding Covid-19, which would also assist government in combating "fake news".

"You can’t have people from Lancet, Ampath, Wits, all speaking to the media. There is a need to differentiate between authority and noise."

READ | 116 and counting: Breaking down SA's confirmed coronavirus cases

She said that technicians and experts had asked for communication to be directed away from them, because they were overwhelmed with requests for comment.

"Those people must work. We can’t have them speaking to the media… you guys call people at 4am in the morning," said Manzi.

She said experts needed to be "relieved" of the "burden" of dealing with the press to focus on their duties as professionals.

A public health specialist interviewed by News24 pointed out that, while it was important for government to centralise information about infection rates, this should not be a blanket rule. She said that it made sense for government to want to avoid a number of different infection rate counts doing the rounds, and for the NICD to be the only, authoritative voice on this. But this should not amount to an instruction not to talk to journalists at all, she said.

Information 'must get out'

Yet some experts interviewed by News24 expressed frustration over the situation, and said there was a need for communication on Covid-19 from more non-governmental sources.

In an email exchange, a professor of immunology explained to News24 that he was "obligated" to refer the query to the NICD.

Two other experts, one a professor and the other a medical doctor – both highly specialised in the fields of virology and immunology – also stated that they were not allowed to speak to the media and that they had been told to send any queries to the NICD.

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However, both said that they felt it was important to give information to the press, as the NICD was overwhelmed by requests for information, and so not enough information about Covid-19 was getting out.

"I can’t even get through to the NICD right now," said one of the experts, pointing out that he was actively working on the Covid-19 issue.

Another academic, a highly specialised infectious disease researcher experienced in the field of infection rates modeling, also told News24 that they could not speak about any matter relating to Covid-19. 

These experts are not only valuable for their in-depth knowledge of infectious diseases, but are intimately acquainted with the Covid-19 pandemic and the state’s response to it.

Not speaking to media

The president of the Federation of Infectious Diseases Societies of Southern Africa (FIDSSA), Professor Nelesh Govender, told News24 on Monday he could not speak as he also worked for the NICD.

According to its website, FIDSSA was formed from "an amalgamation of existing societies representing infectious diseases. In 2020, federation member societies include the Infectious Diseases Society of Southern Africa (IDSSA), Infection Control Society of South Africa (ICSSA), South African Society for Clinical Microbiology (SASCM) and Southern African Society of Paediatric Infectious Diseases (SASPID)".

ICSSA, for example, has a society in each province. News24 attempted to contact the heads of each society in each province, to no avail.

One responded, saying queries would have to be directed through the CEO of the private hospital for whom they work.

Another senior risk manager at a large medical aid scheme also could not speak about Covid-19 matters on the record.

Government’s central communications agency, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), did not respond to questions sent on Wednesday morning. 

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