Use science in government decision-making


31 May 2020

INa week when the government spent much time communicating what alert level three is about, it also seemed to generate more confusion. The source of the confusion, it appears, is a lack of
clarity on what the government relies on to make certain decisions.

While millions of people are relieved and besides themselves with excitement about permission to buy alcohol from tomorrow, they are not any wiser how that decision was arrived at. Certainly, the rate of infection is much higher than what it was when the decision was taken. So, the unbanning of the sale of alcohol was despite infections getting worse.

The choice of sectors to open, too, seemed to generate more heat than light. It is apparent the government was under pressure to open the economy because the lockdown had led to many unanticipated – and increasingly unmanageable – social disorders.

The inability of the state to process payments quick enough for people in distress made it untenable to expect those affected to stay put.

However, the manner in which the state relented to such pressure required a level of science behind it. To be flippant, how does it make sense for children to go back to school but not for parliamentarians to go back to work?

Understandably, many parents are up in arms, protesting the very real possibility that schools will be a breeding ground for infections, which then make their way to various homes. The same parents, though, feel entitled to alcohol while they don’t want their kids to return to school.

The decision also to allow South Africans access to alcohol but not cigarettes does not make sense. For the record, we believe that both alcohol and cigarettes are bad, not just for the individuals consuming them, but for our public health system and therefore our taxes.

But should these be allowed under level three? Further, why is alcohol permitted under level three and cigarettes only at level two? What is the science that informs that decision? Why, again, are cigarettes not on level one but two?

The truth is the government can’t explain this. The cigarette lobby is well within its right to go to court and seek relief. Not that it makes sense to support smoking on level three – but because the decision-making process is, at best, badly communicated, and, at worst, arbitrary and therefore legally indefensible.

While we welcome the decision for places of worship to open, we do not understand how these, objectively, can be considered any different to restaurants.

To support the merits or demerits of any opening or continued closure of other sectors, we must all understand what informed the decision.  At this point, many are just relieved that sectors close to their hearts are opening. Populist governments do this without flinching. We must hold our government to a standard higher. The government has a moral responsibility to manage the economy while saving lives.

But it would be unacceptable for some sectors, like the beverage industry, to be prematurely allowed to sell its intoxicating liquids to our people simply because it pays higher taxes while the restaurant economy is allowed to die on the basis of scale.



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