In “Lockdown squabbling and false Covid-19 certainty will endanger us all” (Daily Maverick 18 May 2020), journalist Rebecca Davis throws me into the mix of politicians rejecting evidence and data as the basis for decision-making.
Ed: The passage from the article reads:
“A statement on 14 May by GOOD party secretary-general Brett Herron, critiquing the DA’s critique of lockdown, contains these consecutive sentences without any evident irony:
“‘A national disaster is not a good time for populist rhetoric or cavalier behaviour. It is not the time for buzz-words like ‘data-led evidence-based approach’ and ‘hotspot plans’.”
“These bizarre articulations would be darkly hilarious if there were not so much at stake.
“In the case of Herron, it should go without saying that it is the absolute zenith of ‘populist rhetoric’ to call for a rejection of ‘data-led evidence-based approaches’ in the middle of a public health emergency.”)
This completely misrepresents my statement, quoted by Davis, and is exactly the opposite of what I was saying.
The president addressed the nation on the evening of 13 May and indicated that the next phase of the government’s deliberations was moving some parts of the country from Level 4 to Level 3 of the risk-adjusted lockdown strategy.
Western Cape Premier Alan Winde immediately called for the Western Cape to move to Level 3 – despite the fact that the Western Cape has the highest Covid-19 infection numbers and the highest death toll.
To support his call the premier said the Western Cape had adopted a “data-led”, “evidence-based” “all of government” approach. But, all the available evidence and data shows the situation is anything but under control.
As much as we all want to further open the economy to protect jobs, the premier offered no science or health basis for relaxing the Western Cape to Level 3.
In my statement, I said that “the move to Level 3 must be supported by science”. This is hardly a rejection of science or data-led decision making.
The people of the Western Cape, and especially our economic powerhouse, Cape Town, face the bleak prospect of being stuck in Level 4 while other parts of the country progress towards greater economic and social activity. The DA’s political buzzwords and spin should not override the reality that more people are dying in the Western Cape than in all other provinces combined.
Given the high infection numbers and the high death rate, during a sitting of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament last week, I asked the premier to share the details of the health and scientific basis for his call to move to Level 3. He was unable to do so and we remain in the dark as to what evidence and data supports his call.
Since then the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, has presented a comprehensive set of Covid-19 data to editors and this data confirms that the data and the evidence don’t sustain the claim of a “data-led” and “evidence-based” approach.
While South Africa’s politicians and the media have focused only on testing data, and the daily number of positive cases and deaths, this data shows only one part of the full public health response to the pandemic. The full public health response includes mass community screening, testing, isolating positive cases, identifying and tracing contacts, then placing the traced contacts in quarantine.
The minister disclosed that while the widely applauded community screening programme had reached nearly 11 million people across the country, the Western Cape was the worst-performing province having screened only 405,000 people. This is shockingly low for one of the most capacitated provinces.
More importantly, the public health response to a positive case is what counts most in the battle to contain widespread transmission. A crucial part of the strategy, employed for viral infections the world over is to trace those who have come into close contact with positive cases and to place them in quarantine.
The minister’s data shows that the Western Cape had managed to reach 83% of the contacts identified – 83% was the worst-performing province in the country. Perhaps more significant than the success rate of reaching contacts is the number of contacts being traced per positive case.
Professors Madhi and Mendelson, both members of the National Minister’s MAC, recently wrote in The Conversation (8 May 2020) that “any single case will on average have 20 close contacts (probably higher in South Africa) who should be traced”.
On 15 May the Western Cape had identified 9,204 contacts to be traced, and had reached 7,614 of them. On the same date, the province had 7,798 positive cases. This means that the Western Cape has identified only 1.2 contacts per positive case and is reaching less than one contact per positive case. This is self-evidently a massive failure of a crucial component of the public health protocols and undermines the entire health management strategy.
Thousands of lives are at stake and we need to listen to the data from the experts. One can call a plan “data-led” and “evidence-based” but without the data and the evidence this is just empty political rhetoric or “buzzwords”. DM
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