Adriaan Basson: Gray's anatomy may be exactly what South Africa needed

A feeding scheme in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats has seen an increase in demand after the lockdown started.
A feeding scheme in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats has seen an increase in demand after the lockdown started.
Jan Ras, News24

The price we pay for a lockdown - increased malnourishment of children and the poor, disruption of routine vaccination and suspended elective surgery - has become too high, writes Adriaan Basson.

I wish President Cyril Ramaphosa would tell us who advises him on the Covid-19 outbreak.

Since the coronavirus hit our shores (as far as we know) in early March, Ramaphosa has told the nation that his government's reaction has been informed by science.

South Africa is blessed to have some of the best medical experts in the world.

We don't have a chief scientist advising the government, but a body called the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) was activated to advise Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on our response to the crisis.

And, in return, Mkhize briefs Ramaphosa and the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the MAC, is a world-renowned epidemiologist.

Professor Glenda Gray heads-up the research leg of the MAC.

Gray is internationally lauded for her work in the field of HIV and Aids.

When she was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe in 2013, this was the citation: "Her excellent life-saving research in mother-to-child transmission of HIV and Aids that has changed the lives of people in South Africa and abroad. Her work has not only saved lives of many children, but also improved the quality of life for many others with HIV and Aids."

Only a fool would dismiss or diminish what she says in response to a health crisis like the coronavirus outbreak.

On Saturday, News24 published a hard-hitting interview with Gray in which she criticised the government's "risk-adjusted strategy" to get out of the hard lockdown that was imposed on 26 March.

The initial hard lockdown of our country was internationally lauded as one of the best global reactions so far to this health crisis.

We looked at what happened in Europe and China and took drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus here.

Although we have a relatively young population, we have a large number of citizens with TB and Aids and the government was understandably very worried that their compromised immune systems would have been vulnerable to Covid-19.

This was an impressive response and the World Health Organisation agreed.

The results have shown this; although we have breached the 1 000 new infections per day mark on Sunday, South Africa has relatively few deaths (264 by Sunday).

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, who produces data analysis on the virus for the government, told News24 last week that as much as 20 000 lives could have been saved by our early hard lockdown. This is an incredible feat.

But then came weeks six and seven and eight, and the government's compelling case for locking down hard started to evaporate. At the moment, we are stuck with a clumsy levels system that nobody really understands.

And the economy is dying. People are running out of money, food and hope. The goodwill of the initial hard lockdown is all but gone.

The biggest flaw of the system is that it can only reduce in levels once infections slow down. This will not happen until after we have reached our peak, which could be anything between July (probably for the Western Cape) and September.

The decision by Ramaphosa to downgrade the entire country to Level 4, while infections were increasing, doesn't seem to comply with this criterion.

The availability of hospital beds and resources is the other test, but this has never been in dispute. Our hospitals are close to empty.

And this is why Gray's intervention is so refreshing and timely.

If I understood her correctly, she argues that our decision to lock down hard was correct, but the continuation of a "smart" lockdown is not steeped in facts or science.

Our health authorities have done what they could during the past seven weeks to upgrade our infrastructure to accommodate the expected rise in Covid-19 patients.

We have set-up field hospitals, imported ventilators and procured personal protective equipment. To continue the lockdown in any shape or form will not reduce our infection rate further.

And the price we pay for a lockdown - increased malnourishment of children and the poor, disruption of routine vaccination and suspended elective surgery - has become too high.

This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable argument that Ramaphosa should address. The president cannot be silent when one of our chief scientists contradicts his government's strategy.

I have seen a disturbing narrative that anyone arguing for a relaxation or scrapping of the lockdown is merely a greedy capitalist with no regard for human life. This is simply not true. 

The consequences of a shutdown of the economy in a relatively poor country with a weak state has been devastating.

Last week, I visited the community of Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats.

Unemployment has spiked and the government's promise of food parcels to replace the school feeding scheme has remained just that - an empty promise.

Malnourishment and starvation are much more real and immediate threats to them than falling ill from Covid-19.

Who speaks for them when Ramaphosa receives his advice?

And who are these advisors?

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