/Adriaan Basson: The government is treating information like cigarettes in a time of crisis

Adriaan Basson: The government is treating information like cigarettes in a time of crisis

2020-04-13 06:55

Unfortunately, and sadly so, there is currently a critical failure of information sharing and communication about the virus at all spheres of government. To be blunt: information is being treated as a non-essential good like cigarettes or booze, writes Adriaan Basson.


Like nurses, doctors and soldiers, journalists have been declared essential service workers during the state of disaster we are in.

There was a very good reason for this: we need to be on the frontline of the coronavirus outbreak to tell you, the citizens of South Africa, what is going on while you are in lockdown, helping to contain the spread of the deadly virus. This is not a responsibility we take lightly.

Every morning, hundreds of women and men in South Africa leave their houses, armed with bottles of hand sanitiser, wipes, gloves and masks in addition to their notebooks, cameras and microphones to tell the story of Covid-19 in South Africa.

We are in the townships, in the informal settlements and in the suburbs to see how our security forces are enforcing the lockdown and how thousands of people are being tested for the virus.

We are at the press conferences to interrogate government’s regulations for the lockdown and to report on the latest data from our frail economy.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 24: Media during th

Media during a national command council briefing. (Photo by Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius)

We play an essential role in providing up-to-date information that is educational, useful and relevant during this time.

To be able to fulfil this role with the necessary diligence, we need access to data. A lot of it. For many of us – myself included – this is the first time we are required to report on a major public health crisis.

The public’s goodwill to abide by undemocratic lockdown rules during a state of disaster depends largely on the transparency and integrity of the government’s communication. Through the media, that communication is amplified.

Unfortunately, and sadly so, there is currently a critical failure of information sharing and communication about the virus at all spheres of government. To be blunt: information is being treated as a non-essential good like cigarettes or booze.

Even a simple exercise like publishing the daily numbers of new infections, deaths and number of tests done does not pass without drama. There is no fixed time or format for this briefing. We now know to expect it in the late afternoon or early in the evening, but it remains a surprise.

Sometimes, the numbers just don’t come. Other times, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize makes a surprise announcement during a visit to a hospital or on a live TV interview. And on some days, provinces announce their own number with varying degrees of detail.

There is absolutely no structure or consistency in the way the national and provincial health departments and their agencies communicate with South Africa.

This includes the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), leading government’s ambitious testing drive, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), that manages the outbreak for the state.

The clearest example of a communications breakdown in our fight against Covid-19 was the lack of empirical data during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a lockdown extension on Thursday night. Ramaphosa referred to general global trends but did not have deep enough testing results on which to base his decision.

At the same time, Ramaphosa chose, or was advised, not to disclose projections by the health department that South Africa would only reach its Covid-19 peak infection rate at the end of winter and that another two weeks’ lockdown was needed to push the timeline to September.

This is a key piece of data that was only revealed on Friday night during a presentation by Dr Anban Pillay, acting director-general of the health department, to Parliament’s health portfolio committee (the presentation was posted in a health department WhatsApp group for journalists, but quickly deleted by the minister’s spokesperson).

The presentation clearly suggests that the lockdown was extended by two weeks to give the government more time to procure ventilators and personal protective equipment to prepare for an inevitable health crisis at the end of winter. Neither Ramaphosa, nor Mkhize have explained this to the nation. Why not?

I would be deeply troubled if the answer is to avoid panic, because nothing will induce panic more than a government withholding key information and research from its citizens in a time of crisis.

It is clear from the health department’s own research that the outbreak and its devastating impact will be with us for many months to come. Information is an essential ingredient to successfully fighting Covid-19. We need an urgent solution to this harmful impasse.

 – Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24

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