PANDA’s open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa urging for a move to Level 1 Lockdown

By Nick Hudson*

Dear Mr. President,

As South Africa enters Level 3 of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) lockdown, we write to you with a deep sense of concern and dire urgency.

You may recall from our previous communications that Pandemic ~ Data and Analytics’ (PANDA) technical team brings to bear knowledge from the fields of actuarial mathematics, economics, data science and medicine, amongst others.

PANDA aims to assist stakeholders in their efforts to make the best-possible informed decisions. The central premise of our approach is that the impact of lockdown must be understood and quantified in order to make informed decisions. We need to understand not just what the impact of lockdown will be on Covid-19, but what the impact will be on livelihoods and the lives that are inextricably linked thereto.

Our estimates of the long-term economic damage and loss of life that South Africa could still endure – appended to this letter and previously shared with Your Excellency’s office, colleagues on the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) as well as other spheres of government – have made it increasingly clear that a more rapid de-escalation of the Covid-19 lockdown is required to save our economy, the livelihoods of millions of South Africans and ultimately lives. We agree with Your Excellency’s remark that lockdown has become a “blunt tool”, and would add that the blunt edge of that tool strikes the poor hardest.

We note that during the virtual forum with the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) held on Sunday, 31 May, Your Excellency mentioned that:

“(The medical scientists who have been advising the NCCC) also said once we went through Level 5 and Level 4, they also said the lockdown has served its purpose. In fact, what they were also advising was that you could quite easily go to Level 1.”

Our scientists concur with them.

We note that the World Health Organization (WHO), whose current estimate is 23,661 South African deaths from Covid-19, recommends a gradual removal of lockdown conditions that weighs against this. It is our strong view that this advice is misguided. Each of the preconditions suggested by the WHO are unachievable by almost all countries and is neither based on science, nor adequately takes into account the negative impacts of lockdown. Indeed, it has become abundantly clear in our country as in others that lifting lockdowns does not result in the feared resurgence of cases and deaths that the WHO and various modelling teams have predicted.

The WHO’s recommended guidance is a broad framework which fails to take into account the specific circumstances of any individual country and as such is entirely impractical in the South African context. The lockdown is increasingly unpopular in South Africa and with 230,000 of our citizens having already been charged for contravention of lockdown regulations, it is instilling a culture of lawlessness.

Another question weighing on Your Excellency’s mind is likely the projections of the various modelling teams. At Minister Mkhize’s Covid-19 Modellers’ Symposium of 21 March, we pointed out that all of the models presented were inconsistent with evidence that had emerged internationally, and we invited engagement with these teams to help them correct their models. Even as contradicting evidence has continued to mount, making the case against continued deployment of these models overwhelming, we disappointingly see no material effort on behalf of the modelling teams to apply the basic principles of the scientific method or to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds their work.

It remains our opinion that even their lower-bound estimates profoundly overestimate the magnitude of the Covid-19 epidemic in South Africa (by a factor of at least four) and the timing of the peak (by several months). We advise caution in premising the allocation of scarce resources on these models, which appear to us to represent pseudoscience.

We remain deeply sensitive to the onerous position that policy makers occupy. The PANDA team remains willing to support decision-making and serve at Your Excellency’s pleasure.

We urge Your Excellency not to risk further harm to the economy by opting for a gradual reduction to Level 2, but instead to reduce the lockdown to Level 1 as the next step.

We trust our request will receive due consideration and would appreciate an acknowledgement of receipt together with a possible date at which we can present our critical findings.

Kind Regards,

Nick Hudson, Co-ordinator: Pandemic ~ Data and Analytics (PANDA)

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