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South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown may cause 29 times more deaths in the long run than the virus. That is the stark message from Pandemic Data and Analytics (Panda) who have compiled a report that they have handed over to the Presidency. The co-ordinator of Panda, Nick Hudson says that the government’s mantra that the lockdown saves lives and that it is lives versus the economy is a false dichotomy. Poverty due to the lockdown could in the long run be a bigger killer than Covid-19. He explained to Linda van Tilburg who Panda was and said he thought the Sweden model was a good one for the second phase of the lockdown.
Panda is a collection of people who were concerned about the same thing and joined forces to see what could be done about it. We were very worried individuals about the future of our country. We thought that the country was being placed at great risk. The guys have in common an interest in addressing that problem.
They’re a concerned group of professionals and comprise actuaries, data scientists, economists, and lawyers. It’s such a diverse group, with different skills which has helped in doing the analysis that is required – a little bit of head-scratching on how we are going to get a grip on that kind of parameter – where we are going to get this kind of data. There’s a lot of people working very hard for the sole purpose of trying to save our country from what we see as a very calamitous set of policy choices.
We thought it was a fairly inane argument that we can’t prioritise the economy over lives back into a domain that linked the economy back to lives and livelihoods and try to make it a debate that we can at least discuss it more rationally.
Tell me exactly what you found in terms of the numbers?
We pushed things around as hard as we could, because the way we set about to. Our intuition was that lockdown was doing more harm. But the thing to do then is to set up an experiment and say, OK this proves that lockdown is working and it does the maths on that. We set up the actuarial numbers and say, what is the economic damage? What happens if we assume it’s only this much and only this many jobs and that this many of them are permanently lost and those people slide down the income scale. What happened to their mortality? What are they losing in the process? We do the numbers. Can we show that number is lower than what is spared in theory by the curve being flattened?
We couldn’t. We couldn’t even get close. Our best estimate is through the roof and the very conservative versions of the numbers which we put in our paper, spelt out that you lose three times as many years of life from the economic impact than you saved from avoiding the hospital and the burden. It’s an extreme story. Our numbers have to be out by a lot and by an implausible amount for the answer to be different.
You say the death toll from South Africa’s coronavirus outbreak this year could range between 46,000 and 88,000.
That is not our estimate. We’re just taking everybody else’s estimates. We don’t believe that they’re right. If there are any more deaths you’re going to set up a model that’s going to be right in inverted commas. We just took a range of other people’s estimates and applied the numbers to those because our own version tells a story that’s not as severe as that.
But we didn’t want that to be the centre of the argument. No. We weren’t trying to model the pandemic. We just took the most extreme publicly available one and a lower one, about half that level and then ran the numbers on those bases just to see what the range was. Even when we use that 88,000 assumption. Therefore, a much bigger hospital overburdening problem – which then maximises the benefit of lockdown. We still couldn’t get the numbers to come anywhere near balance.
You’ve written a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, will you tell him that in the long run the lockdown will cause more loss of life than the virus itself.
When you are sitting on that kind of information we tested it first. We went to push it past actuaries as if it had nothing to do with the writing of the article. We tested with a well known acclaimed epidemiologist. We took their comments on board and checked whether any of the issues they pointed to made any difference to the stance. Tightened up our calculations in certain places and tightened up the wording in certain places, and then we used that answer. We thought you can’t sit on this because each week of lockdown is probably taking more years of the life of the population than the virus itself.
What is going to happen to that report? Have you actually physically handed it over to somebody?
It went to the presidency early in the week. I forget which day now. We’ve received confirmation that they’ve got it and that they pointed it in the direction of the appropriate people. I’d imagine that would be the Command Council. We’ll see what they say. But the report’s been generally very well received. It’s telling people what they already knew. It’s quite simply that poverty kills people and we’re setting up a whole lot of poverty.
What would your advice be to the government in light of these figures?
My advice would be that we should move to a smarter lockdown, ending this very oppressive economic lockdown. It makes sense for children to go back to school.
You can open up the economy and start doing some cheaper, sensible things like mandatory wearing of masks in public places, public transport. There could be some intelligent things done around making available the opportunity for old, sickly people to protect themselves. The numbers being thrown around in terms of how much money the government tends to raise to address the consequences of lockdown and the virus – you could spend a tiny fraction of those and do back an enormous difference for the poorer, old people who might be at risk, helping them to stay safe while the virus washes through the population. That takes a couple of months, to give it to them as an option. That kind of idea, we haven’t seen in our opinion nearly enough creative thinking around what could be done in that regard.
Another thing that could be done reasonably cheaply would be to escalate the campaign for getting anti-retroviral medication to the unmanaged portion of the HIV positive community in the country, which numbers anywhere between 500,000 – 3 million, depending on who you speak to. That’s a public health concern any day of the week – with or without coronavirus. That would take away one source of potential concern that those people are susceptible to dying from coronavirus, it is not certain that they are, but no harm done in getting them onto ARVs.
There are a range of things that could be done, to lessen the impact, to slow the rate of progression of the disease at a much lower cost, a tiny fraction of the costs being imposed on society by the lockdown. That’s the kind of thing that should be contemplated. It’s what was unfolding before our eyes as a very economically destructive thing. It’s been underestimated by economists. There’s a lot of permanent damage being done – what we would call in an economic world – institutional destruction, businesses that are not going to be around after the lockdown.
What you would be asking for is closer to the Sweden model.
Everybody needs to really look carefully at what’s gone on there. Over the last 5 days, the daily death count has been declining in Sweden. For every two days, the Guardian or other newspaper outlets have been writing these apocalyptic stories about how Sweden is going to go off the charts and everybody is going to die and how awful it is and that simply hasn’t happened.
The Swedish example suggests that it is possible. Of course, there are factors at play in Sweden that might be, or might not be at play in other countries. But do you think that people are making too much of this idea that the Swedes are unique among nations in terms of their natural level of social distancing and that kind of thing. It is a little bit overplayed. Their children carried on going to school.
The Swedish are not little kids, not great social distances and they’re not great hand washers. They have taken the most mature and least panicked approach to this whole thing and it’s going to serve them well in the long run and the economy will do a lot better than other countries that are under severe lockdowns.
It must be understood that our lockdown in South Africa is the most restrictive in the world. It’s very hard to manage an economy centrally controlled, and centrally planned. We’ve known that for many decades. This is what we’re trying to do. We already know that’s impossible.
These things have many unintended consequences. And the economy is a network thing, it’s not a silo thing. Once you start knocking out nodes on the web network the networks fail and that’s what’s happening. The depth of the institutional failing and the depth of the cuts in the economy are being underestimated and it’s accelerating.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.