Data lockdown: Tension simmers as questions are raised about access to Covid-19 information

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Frustration is building among scientists over the government's apparent lack of willingness to make key, detailed Covid-19 data accessible ahead of a meeting of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Monday.

News24 understands that questions have arisen over the apparent stranglehold by the Department of Health on access to spatial data (geo-located confirmed coronavirus cases), data around testing, screening, contact tracing and hospitalisation data – which includes availability levels of medical supplies and high care beds. 

According to a member of the MAC – who spoke on condition of anonymity – several members of the advisory body have spoken out during past meetings against the apparent lockdown on data. 

The MAC consists of some of the country's most eminent scientists and advises the health department on the best strategy to counter the spread of the Covid-19 disease. 

This follows a turbulent 48 hours in which: 

  • Dr Glenda Gray, head of the South African Medical Research Council, one of the country's foremost HIV/Aids researchers and a member of the MAC, slammed the government's lockdown, calling much of it "unscientific" and "nonsensical"; 
  • She was supported by other scientists and clinicians, as well as various members of the MAC, who said the MAC was not consulted on some aspects and details of the lockdown; 
  • An after-hours meeting of the MAC on Saturday night, during which Gray was reprimanded by Anban Pillay, acting director general of health; and 
  • Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, in late night phone calls to reporters, defending the government and his department's actions, denying that, among other things, information is being withheld.  

In an interview with News24 on Saturday night, Mkhize denied that access to information was being curtailed. 

"I don't know of anyone who has actually come to us and said give us this information and we refused," he said, while pointing out that detailed numbers were verified and released by the department daily. 

"We have been so transparent and upfront with everything that we haven't got anything to hide, we haven't hidden anything. So when we get accused sometimes, we don't know how to deal with the accusation because we don't understand what people are now trying to do," Mkhize said.  

READ | Unscientific and nonsensical: Top scientist slams government’s lockdown strategy

He was responding to a News24 query sent last week, in which access to numerous data sets around Covid-19 was requested, and the Department of Health was asked to address the apparent cloak of secrecy around some types of data.  

According to Professor Alex van den Heever, an expert in health systems and economics, the ability for citizens to take preventative measures to protect themselves from the coronavirus is being hampered by the government's lack of transparency around Covid-19 data.  

Van den Heever questioned the rationale behind some types of data – particularly where cases were being found and at what rate, and other contact tracing and screening data – being kept locked away from public view, saying it hindered the individual's ability to take informed steps to avoid direct contact with hotspots. 

"We don't know what they have done and where. And that means I can't protect myself. A large part of managing an epidemic like this is you being able to take preventative action yourself, not just the government.

"The question is, is there a rational explanation for holding back that information, or is there just some sort of unscientific excuse?"

EXPLAINER | How the Ministerial Advisory Committee works in the fight against Covid-19

Van den Heever, the chair in the field of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand's School of Governance, told News24 in a wide-ranging interview the reasons given for withholding data, specifically around the location of confirmed cases as well as testing and contact tracing data, were illogical and unscientific.

"The rationale offered may be that they don't want people to face stigmatisation. But where you are not revealing the identity of the person, you are just showing the public that there is an outbreak in this local area. And then they may say they don't want to cause panic.

"The absence of credible information is more likely to cause anxiety, uncertainty, panic and a loss of trust in the government - all things you don't want in an epidemic," he said.

So far, the Department of Health has not released modelling data or projections, reports over progress made to identify hotspots through testing and screening, contact tracing, testing data per region, and testing data that shows the growth rate of the epidemic (rate of positive and negative cases found per tests done), as well as data that shows time delays and backlogs in testing.  

On a daily basis, the department has simply released the number of tests done, the number of confirmed cases, the number of deaths and, more recently, a breakdown per province showing the total number of confirmed cases and deaths per province.  

The daily reporting is based on the number of tests done in the past 24 hours across public and private laboratories – but there is no indication when the samples were collected for those tests.  

Modelling and projections, which could show possible progressions of the local epidemic over time, have also not been made public.

Mkhize told News24 discussions were under way to find the best way to release modelling done so far, but it was fraught with pitfalls.  

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