Despite the fast-moving and uncertain context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the strong, science-based governmental leadership has saved many lives in South Africa, according to the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).
ASSAf, which is the only statutory academy in the country established to provide the government and the general public with evidence-based advice on issues of pressing national concern, released a statement on Monday to state its position on Covid-19 and the country's response to it.
The academy said the government's response had been effective and it had been rightly acknowledged, both nationally and internationally.
"At the moment, the rate of growth of infections and death rates in South Africa is among the lowest in the world and also among BRICS countries.
"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," the organisation said.
"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. Yet what cannot be denied is that strong, science-based governmental leadership has saved many lives, for which South Africa can be thankful."
However, ASSAf believes that the government's response must be further strengthened by including scientists from a broader range of disciplines in its advisory bodies, and for scientific advice to be drawn on to address other urgent concerns, such as the economy and education.
ASSAf contended that it is crucial for the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), and the structures reporting to it, such as the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19, to be advised by a number of scientists in different disciplines.
"While it is important to have epidemiologists, vaccinologists and infectious disease experts on these bodies, we believe that the pandemic is not simply a medical problem, but a social problem as well," ASSAf said.
"This means that social scientists and humanities scholars should also form part of these advisory structures."
ASSAf cited examples:
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 self-employed.
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 the government and its citizens in emergency conditions.
"In partnership with the medical scientists, the government would benefit from such an inclusive, multi-disciplinary approach to science advice that can only strengthen the leadership response to the pandemic."
The academy also said, while the work of the NCCC 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 healthcare 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."
ASSAf added that the NCCC must expand its focus to the regional African context, as the rapid transmission of the virus 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 NCCC. We should do so not only because of the regional, integrated character of the public health crisis, but as a statement of solidarity with African neighbour states with even more precarious national health systems," the academy said.
"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."
The statement was signed by the council of the ASSAf, which includes its president, Professor Jonathan Jansen, and vice presidents Professor Barney Pityana and Professor Brenda Wingfield.
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