Government’s Covid-19 science mask is slipping

It is comforting to know that, in a time of great danger, the government is working with top scientists to do what is best for us. But the comfort is often false, for science can be used to make things seem more certain than they really are. And it can give an excuse to authorities that don’t want to listen to the governed.

The government’s approach to Covid-19 is a contradiction. On one hand, it is an example of what the scholar James Scott calls “high modernism” – the belief that clever people in government can use science to make the world do whatever they want. On the other, it signals that the government believes it can make the world do very little. This mix of overconfidence and insecurity makes it want to control, not listen.

President Cyril Ramaphosa says the government is adopting a “properly calibrated” approach to lifting the lockdown that will balance the needs of the economy with controlling the virus. Its vehicle is the five-level programme, which will balance these two needs not only nationally, but in each region. It is backed by a strong scientific team and research into businesses’ ability to reopen while protecting public health. 

This is a marked change from the government’s response to Aids, which was hostile to science. The contrast is more poignant because the public face of the scientific team is Salim Abdool Karim, a renowned epidemiologist whose work on Aids was rejected by the then government. Then, Karim was relegated to the margins. Now he is a celebrity. So, like governments elsewhere, South Africa is now “following the science”.

But science helps us only if it does not become a fetish – a means to control people and not to protect them. It is doubtful whether anyone anywhere knows how to ease a lockdown to “perfectly” balance freedom and health. Even if the planners miraculously get that right, people don’t ever behave as the plans say they will: there is a huge gap between what the government wants to happen in townships and shack settlements and what really does.  “Carefully calibrated” planning that ignores people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake will always be resisted in ways which undo the plans. 

A tone-deaf ear

Deep down, the government knows this. It asked for comment on the plans, which it would not need if they were pure science. But because it either thinks too much or too little of itself, it did not want to give people a real say, so it settled for a “consultation” that heard only organised lobbies, while some in the government used the process as an excuse to do what they wanted to do all along. This does not square with its claim, which has been sold to the World Health Organization, that it is hearing the people. 

The result was an attempt to both control people and pander to organised lobbies, which was anything but “carefully calibrated”. People can’t walk in the streets after 9am, but they can shop for clothes. They can’t leave their homes, but they can cross provincial borders. Nor can the government enforce the grand plans: hungry people queue for food in large numbers, smokers use illicit products and a mining union must go to court to ensure that the mines have a plan to keep their workers safe.     

Its brand of science also reflects this mix. The Aids science was much clearer than that for Covid-19. There was medicine that could prevent people dying and it was much easier to control the spread. Covid-19 has no cure and scientists acknowledge that there is much they don’t know about it.

And yet the science is presented as fact. Karim’s obvious expertise and the difference between his rational view and those of Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro ensure that he is never challenged. But not everything he says is beyond question. He insists repeatedly that this country cannot avoid a “severe” outbreak. He bases this on the claim that every other country has experienced one and that we are not unique. To underline this, he urges us to be ready for widespread bereavement.

This largely breaks the link between what we do to protect ourselves and whether we can stop the disease. The restrictions that have thrust millions into poverty are not meant to stop people getting sick, but to make sure they do it when the health system is ready. We are told to fight the virus – and that we are doomed to lose. This must terrify people who know they may die of the disease however ready the health system is. 

Hiding behind obfuscation 

This view, too, is based on a claim that everything and nothing can be controlled, and it can tread on dangerous ground. Asked about the opening of schools, Karim told an interviewer that the virus was not going away soon, which implied that it did not matter much when schools opened. 

But a “severe epidemic” is not every country’s experience. South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand have all sharply curbed cases and deaths. In all three, new infections have dwindled to just about none. They may experience new waves, but so far they have avoided what we are told is inevitable.

Karim obviously knows this, so can it be that he really means – but cannot say – that some countries can prevent a severe epidemic and that he believes we are not one of them because our government is in control of too little to do that?

A comment by Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel shows where the bizarre official mixture of fatalism, which assumes that disaster is inevitable, and a belief that the government has supernatural powers can lead. Official projections first said the epidemic would peak in June or July. This has been changed to September. Patel told a briefing that, because mid-year was the flu season, the government had decided to postpone the peak to September. So, the virus is so powerful that we cannot stop it, but it can also be made to delay its peak on the orders of the revealingly named National Coronavirus Command Council.

The health minister, Zweli Mkhize, offered a more plausible version of the delay. Medical scientists’ models, he said, had the virus peaking in July, but with the lockdown it was hoped to delay it for five weeks so that it would not come in the flu season. This seemingly slight change managed to avoid both false claims of certainty and the view that nothing can be done.

The government may claim the certainty of science, but many lockdown measures are harsh precisely because it knows it has weak roots in the townships and so fears it can only get them to behave if it uses a crude sledgehammer. It peddles the high modernist conceit that it is acting on certain knowledge because it hopes that this will silence citizens who might show up its insecurities. 

We need a sense of common purpose to face Covid-19. The virus is a killer, and we need the social distancing and testing and tracing which are mandated by what scientists do know. But that does not mean accepting anything we hear from a government whose claim to control everything betrays a fear that it can control very little. 

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