Stop using the lockdown as a political football

By Verashni Pillay

This so-called “debate” about ending the lockdown is disingenuous. Who is saying we shouldn’t? In the Sunday Times lead story this weekend, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize agreed the lockdown must end, but that wasn’t the angle pushed in the headline or lead.

There IS a debate is over the details of the regulations and lockdown stages. Various stakeholders and groups are debating the details of phasing it out, which is good. But the strawman argument of people supposedly for/against the lockdown creates a false impression of enmity, and unnecessarily fractures an already fragile sense of nationhood.

Lockdown has become a political football, ahead of elections next year for an embattled opposition – particularly the DA. A lot of the lockdown and its implementation is flawed & doesn’t pass the test of rationality. But there’s no real “lockdown fundamentalists” – just the idea of this kind of person to create political spectacle, as John Steenhuisen did on the SABC this week. The party needs a bogeyman to fight in order to prove itself the saviour. The mythical lockdown fundamentalist has become just that. 

Besides the political opportunism of creating a political strawman to make party leaders look good, there are also ordinary South Africans who are understandably frustrated. This is a global depression and pandemic. But it’s hard to think globally when many are facing tremendous uncertainty and financial ruin. So they revert to well-worn grooves of blaming the government, whether fair or not to do so. 

Then there’s the media’s role. 

Some of the biggest and most influential publications and editors have taken a stance that the economy must open, so publish takes and commenters that support that stance. Remember, this decision isn’t happening in a vacuum. Most mainstream publishers will be sympathetic to business’s concerns about the economy as their advertising revenue dries up and sales drop.

And so minority views are often blown out of proportion. This weekend, both News24 and Sunday Times ran alarming reports quoting several scientists from the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC). Their view: the lockdown has no scientific basis, was nonsensical, and should be ended immediately.

But the Sunday Times did not say how many scientists or experts they spoke to. They only quoted three advisers by name, and possibly two more who spoke anonymously. News24 quoted two more by name. That makes five MAC members in total, on the record. 

The MAC has 51 members, made up of a range of different experts, scientists included, responsible for guiding the Department of Health’s response to the pandemic. We don’t know what the other 46 members think. 

We also have top scientists in one field making pronouncements in another. Dr Glenda Gray, the foremost voice quoted by News24 and Sunday Times IS a highly respected expert – in the field of pediatrics and HIV vaccines. But that doesn’t necessarily make her an expert on how to ease a nationwide lockdown. In fact, Gray seemingly made a mistake regarding malnutrition in her original quotes, which made the lockdown appear worse than it is. When this was pointed out on Twitter, News24 clarified the mistake, but without noting they had done so. This damages trust with readers.

Similarly, an actuarial group called Panda put out a study claiming the lockdown would cause more deaths than the virus in SA. But the authors were not experts in healthcare, causing dismay among many actual health actuaries. Nonetheless Business Day went big with this study as authoritative, before it was peer-reviewed. They also did not get comments from experts who were NOT authors of the paper. 

We’ve also had public health economists making sweeping pronouncements on epidemiology.

All these people are incredibly respected but in a particular field. When they talk in another field, the layperson can’t always differentiate, so incorrectly take their words as gospel truth. Many journalists aren’t helping matters by not differentiating either, or getting other views and responses from people in the field. 

SA’s foremost health journalist, Mia Malan, pointed out in a recent webinar, talking about how to responsibly report in this time, that scientists who don’t feel heard, or feel slighted, will head to the media to amplify their views.

As Malan noted, even scientists have egos. 

Ending the lockdown is a complex matter, and there are no easy answers. What we’re facing is unprecedented.

All this is not to say authorities aren’t making mistakes or that the lockdown shouldn’t end. Of course they are and of course it should. But we shouldn’t create false impression of national mutiny and raging debate to:

1. Win elections,

2. Sell newspapers or

3. Nurse bruised egos

It’s dangerous and irresponsible to manipulate citizens’ emotions during such a critical time, for such cheap ends. We need a national mood of resolve to tackle this crisis, decisively together, while questioning and holding the government to account for our OWN sakes. Not as proxies for someone else’s war.

Note: This blog was updated with new comments regarding Dr Gray on 18 May 2020, in addition to other minor additions.

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