State must provide credible data to ease public’s pandemic concerns - Businesslive

22 March 2020 - Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, but a fundamental requirement of any society that hopes to be resilient in the face of an existential threat as menacing as the Covid-19 pandemic is that it remains open and accountable.

Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, but a fundamental requirement of any society that hopes to be resilient in the face of an existential threat as menacing as the Covid-19 pandemic is that it remains open and accountable.

Authoritarian impulses, which always well from a distrust of freedom, underestimate at once the willingness of individuals to act in the collective interest and the risk of their not knowing enough to act at all.

Today there is an overwhelming public interest in the government’s firmness in imposing rational constraints on our movements (among other things) at a time when free movement would place all of us in much greater peril. There is an equivalent public interest in citizens properly understanding the crisis if they are to participate voluntarily in confronting it.

And, to its credit, the government and its primary science partner in managing the coronavirus epidemic, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), have given daily briefings and measured advice. In less than a month, we have watched the tally of positive cases in SA grow from 1 to 240.


There are jitters, and some senseless panic buying of household goods, but most people have responded sensibly — readily adopting the social distancing (including, for those able to, working from home) that research shows to be the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus and thus prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed.

But for social distancing to be sustained and effective nothing is more important than a constant flow of information that is trustworthy and regularly updated. It is this alone — especially with the increasing social disaggregation that comes with people self-isolating at home, limiting their outings and contacts with others, losing touch with what’s going on “out there” — that reminds us of our collective interest and the importance, for everybody, of our voluntary exclusion.

Things move quickly, and what was in the news just a few days ago is soon overtaken. But one jarring report last week pointed to what at least is the origin of a plausible anxiety: the detailed article on News24 describing how “epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists and other experts on Covid-19" had been in effect “gagged” by the government “with an instruction that all requests for comment [about the coronavirus crisis] should be directed to the ... NICD”.

The claims, though queried by the NICD, highlight both a risk and a deficiency. The risk is that reducing rather than being willing to enlarge the public conversation about Covid-19, particularly among scientists, can only limit society’s grasp of the crisis, and its capacity to act.

The deficiency is that there is simply not enough information coming out of official agencies in a sufficiently organised way. Whether it falls under the health ministry or the NICD or both, what is needed urgently is a highly responsive media unit, operating 24/7, whose staff understand that when they speak to journalists and media platforms they are speaking to the public.

They should be ready to brief the country first thing in the morning, and thereafter at regular intervals through the day, on the infection and related figures along with any other pertinent information. We need credible information on where we stand when we wake up and when we go to bed.

This is not a distraction from the priorities of health and science. It is the public’s knowledge, and its awareness of the implications, that will determine SA's popular willingness to shoulder the front-line responsibility on which our fate now depends.

• Morris is head of media the Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-03-22-michael-morris-state-must-provide-credible-data-to-ease-publics-pandemic-concerns/

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