UPDATE: Prof Boulle complaint to Press Council is ‘unpublished’ – PANDA Covid-19 debate

UPDATE: The Press Council of South Africa has notified BizNews that it sent a complaint from Professor Andrew Boulle – of the University of Cape Town, and an advisor to local government – and related demands for seven remedial actions in error. The Press Council of SA’s representative has requested, as BizNews is not a member of the organisation, that BizNews unpublishes this complaint. The BizNews offer to Professor Boulle and his fellow complainants to present counterarguments to criticism of their work still stands. In addition to offering Professor Boulle an opportunity to have an article published on BizNews in a prominent position, BizNews Radio has also invited Professor Boulle to an interview with our top journalist, broadcaster and BizNews founder Alec Hogg, for an in-depth discussion on Covid-19 models that have underpinned government policy. We have unpublished the details of the complaint as a courtesy to the Press Council of SA. – Editor

By Jackie Cameron

The government has sold us a strict Covid-19 lockdown based on, initially, the need to get healthcare workers and facilities prepared and then through scary forecasts of how many of us are likely to get sick or die from the coronavirus. We have been asked to balance economic considerations with the need to save lives and avoid overburdening stretched medical facilities.

Of 325,000 South Africans who have tested positive for Covid-19, almost 4,700 have died while 166,000 have recovered.  This translates into a 1.4% death rate, around one third of the global average. This is noteworthy when you consider that South Africa now ranks among the top 10 countries for the highest number of infections. Mexico has a similar number of reported Covid-19 cases and has registered about 38,000 deaths.

The economy, on the other hand, has fallen dramatically with many sectors on the brink of collapse.

Earlier this week, a multi-university research group published findings of a survey involving 10,000 people, finding that an estimated three million people lost jobs in April alone – two million of whom were women. The irony should not be lost on us that the Covid-19 alcohol ban designed to curb domestic abuse and gender-based violence has also plunged a huge number of women and their children into poverty.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni warned when he presented an emergency budget in June that South Africa is at risk of a sovereign debt crisis. Last week B4SA followed up on this projection with plans to rescue the country. At best, and with R3.4 trillion required, South Africa could likely emerge in three years as it looked just before Covid-19 struck – with high unemployment and low growth, is the B4SA forecast.

Many people are deeply worried about their livelihoods and the country’s future.

With this as background, we believe it is very much in the public interest for media organisations like ours to interrogate all details of the lockdown. In the same way that BizNews.com shines its searchlight on political leaders to hold them accountable for their decisions, we believe it is also important to serve as a check and balance against others in positions of power who can, directly and indirectly, exert considerable influence over society.

These powerful actors range from business and community leaders and, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, to those advising the government, from scientists to statisticians.

We aim to serve the public through our own reports and investigations and by using our platform to air a diverse range of perspectives and opinions from analysts, experts and community members. This is done with the intention of enabling our community to better understand issues at play, what is working and what should be changed in the public interest. Encouraging debate and publishing all sides of any story are among our core values.

Recently, we published a series of articles of opinion and analysis supplied to us by PANDA. We have also interviewed PANDA actuary Nick Hudson on our BizNews Radio podcasts.

These in-depth articles, which contained graphs, analysis and detailed sourcing, were submitted to us for publication by PANDA, and, subsequent to our publication, these were distributed by the body through its own channels, including social media. 

PANDA describes itself as a collective of leading actuaries, economists, data scientists, statisticians, medical doctors, lawyers, engineers and businesspeople working together to question and replace bad science with good science. Some of South Africa’s most respected professionals in their fields have voluntarily invested their own free time to apply their considerable intellect to the Covid-19 crisis with a view to serving the public interest.

“PANDA members work voluntarily, offering their skillset to contribute to informed policymaking and decisioning. PANDA is not aligned with any political entities and is funded by its members and speaking engagements,” it says on its website.

We have no reason to believe PANDA works to any hidden agenda – one of several accusations levelled at PANDA by Professor Andrew Boulle, a Public Health Medicine specialist with the Western Cape Provincial Department of Health and University of Cape Town, who has featured in PANDA criticism.

Professor Boulle has complained to the Press Council of SA about BizNews. Among his demands are that we do not give PANDA a platform. He has asked for the right of reply, should he so desire, but has never approached BizNews directly to correct any facts or provide a detailed riposte. He also wants us to apologise for publishing PANDA’s perspectives.  

We offered Prof Boulle the right of reply on Friday after receiving his complaint from the Press Council of SA. He has declined, saying that he first wants the matter to run its course through the Press Council of SA. We will continue engaging with the Press Council of SA office, but in the meantime our invitation to Prof Boulle to present his case stands. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Our door is open to everyone who feels they have an alternative perspective to something BizNews has published. We see this as the best way to ensure we fulfil another of our core values which is to serve our community – not special interests.

We also believe absolutely in freedom of speech and will continue to carry a diversity of views on Covid-19 and the other issues that we believe are critically important for our community members to understand and debate.

Professor Boulle has levelled a range of accusations at BizNews.

8212 Complaint to the Press Ombud:

[This complaint has been unpublished. See Editor’s note, above]

The complaint was submitted by Professor Andrew Boulle and compiled and co-submitted on his behalf by Prof Leslie London, School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town, with the support of the following co-submitters:

  • Hassan Mahomed, University of Stellenbosch
  • Geetesh Solanki, Senior Specialist Scientist Health Systems Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council; and Honorary Research Associate, Health Economic Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Anthony Hawkridge, Public Health Medicine specialist
  • Cynthia Tamandjou Tchuem, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Sumaiyah Docrat, Alan Flisher Center for Public Mental Health, University of Cape Town
  • Tommy Wilkinson, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Emmanuelle Daviaud, Senior Economist, South African Medical Research Council
  • Susan Cleary, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
  • Donela Besada, Health Systems Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council

BizNews offers right of reply article, interview

After BizNews received the complaint [now unpublished] from the Press Ombud last week, we asked Professor Boulle if he would like to send his “contrary piece”, as indicated in point 6 of the remedial action, and we also sent an email to the University of Cape Town reminding their media liaison officer that we welcome all views and responses – not only in connection with this matter, but any others that relate to their activities. We also offered Professor Boulle an opportunity to put his side of the story forward in a podcast interview with BizNews founder Alec Hogg. Again, Professor Boulle declined, replying with this short note:

  • End note: As the process with the press ombud has now concluded, BizNews looks forward to receiving and publishing Professor Boulle’s response to PANDA pieces that relate to his work.

See other related articles: 

Mailbox: PANDA giving actuaries and economists a bad name

Mailbox: ‘Shame on you, for shaming Professor Boulle’ – Covid-19 PANDA data controversy

Worldview: OK fine, PANDA, but what should government do?

Dr Jo Barnes: Why epidemiologists like me reject “just a bad flu” assessment of Covid-19

PANDA: SA govt Covid-19 model continues to ‘grossly overestimate’ deaths

Covid-19 epidemiologists: Fortune-tellers or witches? PANDA reviews the evidence

PANDA charts: More explosive evidence SA’s ‘laser focus’ on Covid-19 is destructive

Nick Hudson, PANDA actuary who tells it like it is: SA has more to worry about than Covid-19. MUST LISTEN!

PANDA rips Cape Covid-19 data to shreds; projections ‘catastrophically wrong’

Shrinking GDP sets ‘ominous tone’ for SA’s future, warn PANDA actuaries, economists

PANDA’s Nick Hudson: “Breathtaking failure” by scaremongering Covid-19 modellers – SA deaths to peak this month

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

Lockdown’s burden of proof extremely high – PANDA’s Russell Lamberti

Inside Covid-19: Credible, fact-based pleas to re-open SA’s economy – from Tygerberg Hospital to Panda. Ep 31

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