The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) says although government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been effective, it is crucial that it includes in its advisory bodies scientists from a much broader range of disciplines. This follows criticism from some of the country’s foremost scientists, including ASSAf members serving on the 45-member ministerial advisory (MAC) on COVID-19, that the lockdown in its current form have no basis in science and should be lifted.

“Through its membership of outstanding scientists from across the disciplines, Academy members such as Professors Salim Abdool Karim, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Glenda Gray, and Shabir Madhi are already working tirelessly in advising the South African government on effective ways of dealing with the pandemic. There are in fact many other Academy members doing important scientific research on the pandemic including Professor Helen Rees who is leading the South African component of a global vaccine trial to identify treatments for COVID-19,” ASSAf pointed out in a statement.

“ASSAf recognises and applauds the South African government for underlining the fact that the national strategy has been based on scientific evidence and guided by the advice of scientists. This was achieved despite uncertainties resulting from limited and evolving epidemiological and medical evidence and the pressure that comes with responding to new and emerging scientific information. In such fast-moving and uncertain contexts, it is perhaps inevitable that different views will result among scientists themselves – such as how, when and where to ease the lockdown,” the Academy explains.

It says while it is important to have epidemiologists, vaccinologists and infectious disease experts on these bodies, it believes that the pandemic is not simply a medical problem but a social problem as well.

This means that social scientists and humanities scholars should also form part of these advisory structures as the following examples illustrate, ASSAf noted.  Psychologists need to advise on the far-reaching mental health costs of the pandemic following extreme forms of isolation. Sociologists need to advise on the efficacy of social distancing in human settlements marked by inequality. Anthropologists need to advise on meaningful rituals of mourning when numbers are restricted for funeral attendance and family members cannot touch loved ones in their final moments. Economists must advise on how to enfranchise workers such as the selfemployed. Social work academics are needed to advise on managing family distress including the rise in domestic violence and the social effects of lockdown on children and the elderly. Political scientists must advise on the norms that should govern the relationship between government and its citizens in emergency conditions. And historians of pandemics can advise on lessons learnt that could be invaluable in making sense of the crisis and its likely course, for example, what happened with the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 when some cities or countries opened prematurely.

“In partnership with the medical scientists, government would benefit from such an inclusive, multidisciplinary approach to science advice that can only strengthen the leadership response to the pandemic. Second, it is critical that the National Coronavirus Command Council expands its focus to the regional African context. A virus, especially this rapid transmission coronavirus, does not respect national borders. In normal times, thousands of Africans travel back and forth every month between South Africa and the other SADC states and beyond. It is vital that the regional connectedness of our African neighbours is accounted for in the deliberations of the National Coronavirus Command Council.

Through the exchange of scientific ideas and the sharing of support, the pandemic offers a strategic opportunity for bolstering regional cooperation in fighting the pandemic. ASSAf believes that the collective expertise of leading scientists from across the African region would fortify a continental response to the pandemic in line with the vision of the African Union.

ASSAF says while it is understandable that the work of the National Coronavirus Command Council deals with managing the immediate crisis, it is not too soon for a broad range of scientific advice to be drawn on to address urgent concerns such as the future of the economy, business, education, human settlements, the environment and, of course, health care reform.

“The novel coronavirus has laid bare the deep inequalities in our society. We dare not reset as a country without addressing the dangerous fault lines exposed by the pandemic. In this task, government must use the best available scientific evidence that is being generated across South Africa such as the highly significant Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM).”

CRAM is a nationally representative sample of 10 000 people who are surveyed in six waves to collect evidence on child hunger, household welfare and social behaviour in relation to COVID-19. This kind of scientific data, as one example, will be invaluable in reconstructing South African society in a post-COVID-19 world, ASSAf says.

There is an indispensable connection between science and the public trust. In the face of a pandemic, with all the fear and uncertainty of a novel virus, the credibility of governmental authority depends more than usual on winning the trust of the public. And there is no better way of maintaining that public trust than by speaking with one voice on the authority of evidence-based science and employing remedies in the pandemic that uphold the values of our Constitution, ASSAf concludes.

Source: ASSAf statement