Government is listening to unions over scientists - experts say school closures against evidence

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President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on 23 July 2020.
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on 23 July 2020.
  • Professor Shabir Madhi and Professor Glenda Gray say the government's decision to close public schools goes against the advice of scientists.
  • On Thursday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that public schools would close for four weeks.
  • Madhi said the decision was a "miscalculation" and Gray said scientists believed the best thing for children was to be at school.

Two of the country's top scientists who serve on the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) have expressed their disappointment at President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement that public schools will close for four weeks during the Covid-19 storm, saying the decision goes against scientific advice and evidence.

This follows Ramaphosa's address to the nation on Thursday night in which he announced public schools would shut down for four weeks, while Grade 12 pupils would take a one-week break.

READ | Ramaphosa declares schools will shut for 4 weeks - but Grade 12s get 1 week's break

Professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Shabir Madhi, told News24 that the government had not taken the advice of scientists who, he said, agreed that schools should not be closed.

"I think it's a case of government deciding to take advice from the unions, rather than from the scientists, because the scientific community has been pretty uniform that there is very little reason to close the schools.

"The opening of the schools has got very little to do with the transmission of the virus and if anything, the closure of the schools is going to do more harm than good," Madhi said.

The science

He explained that children were not responsible for Covid-19 transmissions, while teachers were probably not getting infected while at schools.

"When it comes to the teachers – when you look at the number of teachers [who] have been infected as a percentage of the teaching population, it's no different compared to the general population.

"Teachers are simply not getting infected at school. If teachers are getting infected, they're getting infected like every other member of the community and those infections are taking place in communities," he said.

Whether or not children were at school, adults were the ones who were most likely infecting children.

"Most infections in children are probably going to occur because of adults infecting children. Adults in the household who are going to spend more close time with the child are more likely to infect the child than children who are speaking to each other or playing with each other."

'A miscalculation'

Madhi said he felt the decision to reopen schools was a "miscalculation" as the focus should be on public behaviour.

"It's simply another miscalculation in terms of how the outbreak is evolving, what course it's going to take and what needs to be done. The focus right now is not about schools, the focus is on changing behaviour of citizens in the country and [getting] them to adhere to non-pharmaceutical interventions.

"It simply doesn't assist when they then decide to allow for 100% of occupancy in taxis, which is sort of a breeding ground to ensure you get rapid transmission of the virus, and then paradoxically they go and shut schools where very little transmission of the virus takes place. So, it's completely mindless, in fact."

He said he felt as though government was taking the advice of trade unions and taxis over that of scientists.

"It seems government is more keen to listen to taxi owners and trade union leaders than to the scientist because the scientists have come out uniformly to say that you shouldn't have 100% occupancy of taxis, you shouldn't shut the schools – that's not what's causing the transmission of the virus.

"Allowing for 100% occupancy will ensure that you actually accelerate transmission of the virus. They're going against scientific advice that has been provided to them and they're doing exactly the opposite," Madhi said.

He lambasted decision makers who, he said, falsely believed the virus would disappear in a few months.

"I don't think that the whole issue as to what is going to happen in the next year probably, has filtered through to decision makers.

"They are still under this false belief that this virus is going to go away after two to three months, which is not going to happen," Madhi said.

He added that "equally, they've been incorrect in believing that the closing of schools is going to get rid of the problem or is in any way going to assist in containing the transmission of the virus. It's not going to happen".

FULL TEXT | What Ramaphosa said about closing schools and clamping down on Covid-19 corruption

Global data

Professor Glenda Gray, a paediatrician and president of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), told News24 that the decision went against existing scientific evidence on the impact of Covid-19 on children.

"Keeping children out of school is a sad thing for South Africa," Gray told News24.

"Scientists, paediatricians and doctors have considered the epidemic, both at a global and local level and have immense evidence on how Covid-19 affects children.

"We believed that it was the best thing for children to be at school because we do not believe that Covid-19 infection poses a risk to their health," she said.

Gray, who is an expert in infectious diseases, HIV and has training in paediatrics, explained that the death of children infected with Covid-19 was usually due to serious underlying conditions.

"We've been tracking, as paediatricians, the epidemic globally and locally and we've been looking at the distribution of infections and the hospitalisations and the mortality. We have seen that death in children is usually related to kids who have severe comorbidities, like cancer or congenital heart disease," Gray said.

"As a paediatrician, I am disappointed with the fact that schools have had to close because both the local and the international data strongly suggest that children are not adversely affected by the epidemic," Gray added.

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