Instead of spinning Covid-19 outcomes for 'political gain', this is what govt needs to prioritise

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Health Minister Joe Phaahla
Health Minister Joe Phaahla
PHOTO: Mlungisi Louw
  • A report by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation said the government should fix the systemic weaknesses exposed by Covid-19. 
  • The report found that the measures put in place helped save lives and curbed the spread of the disease. 
  • The report covered the first two waves of the pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2021.

New government research said the systemic weaknesses exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic should be dealt with before being "spun for political gain".

The first edition of South Africa's Covid-19 Country Report will be launched on Thursday.  

The report is compiled by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, in collaboration with the Government Technical Advisory Centre and the National Research Foundation. 

It covered the first two waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2021.  

The document states the implementing of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), when the pandemic started, helped to save lives. 

"There is no denying that the measures the government adopted in terms of the DMA mitigated the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, saved lives and bought time for medical facilities to prepare to treat infected people."

READ | Covid-19: So, what do we do with all of our masks now that they are no longer required?

"These are admirable outcomes, and they will certainly be spun for political gain and popular consumption in the time to come.

"However, to allow the elation of the moment to obscure the legal and governance issues that emerged from the government's disaster management efforts would be irresponsible and insensitive to the public's concerns and grievances."

The report said that, instead of "political aggrandisement", introspection was necessary. 

"Along with a determined effort to deliberate and act on the systemic weaknesses exposed by the pandemic. Several aspects emerged from the discussion...that the government needs to prioritise."

It continued: 

This is especially important as the country had already been in dire economic and political straits even before the pandemic – the state had been failing across the spectrum of its functions after years of corruption, mismanagement and the tendency to put party before state.

Some areas that needed to be prioritised included building capable state institutions, modernisation and professionalisation of government services, a thorough overhaul of the functioning of law enforcement agencies, and non-selective and demonstrable criminal accountability for corrupt activities and abuse of power.

The research also raised the alarm about the freedom of expression of researchers and scientists during the pandemic.

It raised the issue of Professor Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), who criticised the government's response to the pandemic.

READ | National arts festival makes joyous live return after Covid-19 restrictions scrapped

She received a rebuttal from then-health minister Zweli Mkhize.  

"The Gray controversy should be a wake-up call for the South African science community to the reality that scientists' freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted. Clearly, more vigilance and advocacy for freedom of expression are needed."

Police conduct 

The report also flagged police abuse during the pandemic.

It stated that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reported receiving 828 complaints between 26 March and 5 May 2020.

"Of these, 376 related to Covid-19 operations, including 10 cases of deaths as a result of police action and 280 of alleged assault."

The report urged that the use of force be monitored. 

"Here, an independent oversight body could be an important check; indeed, the court ordered such mechanisms in the Khosa case." 

Collins Khosa died after an altercation with members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department. He was beaten, slammed against a cement wall and a steel gate, and hit with the butt of a machine gun.

Government communication concerns

The report raised concerns about government communication during the pandemic. 

"GCIS officials pointed to the instability in the ministry of communications: six ministers had occupied the post in the previous five years, and the latest minister had flouted lockdown regulations and had been suspended. Under the [President Jacob] Zuma-led government, there had been a 'deviation' from the commitment to development communications, and multiple scandals took up the entity's time." 

Then-communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams was placed on two-months' special leave after a picture of her having a meal at the home of former deputy minister of higher education Mduduzi Manana went viral on social media. 

While it found the GCIS communication lacking, it lauded the work of CovidComms, a network of communications volunteers which started during the pandemic to fight fake news and misinformation.  

READ | Monkeypox: 'Too early to call it a pandemic'

The authors of the report suggested a presidential committee be set up to look into "the sustainability of the public, private and community media to ensure that the media sector survives the challenges of economic stagnation, multinational tech monopolies on advertising, and the changing patterns of media consumption to digital platforms".

They also suggested the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation engage with National Treasury and other departments to improve their understanding of the role of the Government Communication Information System (GCIS), as the department planning and buying media on behalf of the government. 

"The GCIS should be empowered to manage (adequately resourced) communications campaigns on national emergencies, which require the obligatory use of the GCIS for media buying.

"More significant investment is needed in the promotion and use of all 11 official languages across all government communications platforms. A multilingual approach that includes sign language is vital for public health."  

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