How PANDA drew deep thinkers to take on SA Covid-19 modellers: The Alec Hogg Show

In the second part of this fascinating interview, Alec Hogg and Nick Hudson get into the early days of PANDA, talking about how people joined the disruptive group. – Jarryd Neves

Well, you’ve just summed up why you went into the role that you did when the pandemic hit. What has been propagated throughout the world – including South Africa – was the narrative which said millions and millions of people are gonna die. This is going to be the pandemic to end all pandemics and you better not go and breathe on anybody close to you because you might kill them.

We had the level five shut down and everyone in South Africa seemed to be on the same page. Then up pops this organisation called PANDA, Nick Hudson and Peter Castleden – you can tell us about the other guys there – who said, ‘No, that’s not the case.’ My goodness, you have been right. But what got you thinking in that direction against the stream in the first place? 

The other guys are an important part of the equation. Dr David Carman, Shayne Krige, an attorney at Werksmans. Russell Lamberti who is an economist at ETM Analytics. The conversation was going among us on a very informal basis. Initially it was just motivated by curiosity and nothing else. ‘This is an interesting event that’s happening. What does it mean?’ As we started grappling with it, we came to conclusions fairly quickly and fairly at odds with the prevailing narrative. So we saw the virus as a much smaller problem than was being made out and we saw lockdowns as a big negative rather than the positive that they were being represented as. 

How did you find each other?

Dave and I have known each other for decades. Shayne and I have a long standing commercial relationship. Russell and I have a friendship. We share a number of interests in reading. I didn’t know Peter. I found him on social media after we got a little bit worried. He was one of the really early joiners on that original group of four. Ian McGorian came on quite quickly. I just recognised a person who was having identical thoughts. It was very coincidental. I sent him a direct message on Twitter and he responded. That was very important because he’s a real man of action, Peter Castleden. I don’t think we would have sprung into action nearly as quickly if it wasn’t for him. 

Apart from sharing ideas and getting irritated at what the popular narrative is, you’ve also had quite an impact on the public. Through BizNews you’ve published a few pieces and we’ve spoken to you various times. You were our top podcasts – I think it was in June – with your views. That doesn’t just happen. There has to be something behind it. Where did the idea come to take it public? 

Well, it’s interesting. We’ve only recently really had the space and time to think about that ourselves. We were propelled into action very quickly and became extraordinarily busy. All of us have day jobs and businesses that we have to maintain. This was very hard work. We were working long hours for months on end. We haven’t had time to indulge in navel-gazing.

I can remember my own psychology at the time. I was just feeling terribly unsettled, very on edge and twitchy. I was getting into arguments with people and being told to shut up, that this was the wrong narrative and it was leaving me very unsettled. You eventually get to the point with knowing what you know – which is that we’re on the verge of perpetrating a great social injustice – is it even an option to do nothing? How are you ever going to be able to look your children in the eye? So even if you make an effort and it leads to nothing, at least you’ll be able to say to them, I did fight as hard as I could.

It’s fascinating. That is the shared feeling. Everybody just had this overwhelming sense of social injustice and a willingness – in the face of what we knew – to take whatever risks and make whatever efforts it took to fight it. That was very much the spirit of the organisation and why we could all look past our various political and other differences and just focus on the task at hand, because it’s an extremely diverse group.

We’ve been cast as being libertarian. The ironic thing about that is they’re on to actually libertarians in the group – not that there would be a problem if they were. It’s a crazily diverse group. During lockdown, we had one of the church services where somebody over ordered on the communion wine. 

It was fascinating, because it was the first time that the group had – in many instances – ever clapped eyes on each other. The conversations were crazy because people found out that they share this common bond but all the other viewpoints were quite different. Yet it was done and the discussions took place in this warm atmosphere of being willing to listen, challenge and hear people out. Hypothesis testing, explanation and refutation. The flavour of PANDA.

One of your supporters – but not publicly at that point – was Magda Wierzycka from Sygnia. She said that she wanted to join PANDA and then was warned off by the Actuarial Society. We also at BizNews had a very threatening letter from a bunch of academics at both the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch. They asked, ‘Why are you giving these people from Panda any exposure whatsoever? In fact, we demand that you no longer speak with them.’ Why do you think there was such a virulent reaction? 

I didn’t know that Magda had been warned off by the society. That’s news to me. I think it’s very important to distinguish between the society and people in it. It’s normal for there to be conflict within a profession. I would regard that as a healthy thing. But there was this minority group in the profession – predominantly people who built the models that we were attacking – and they became quite vocal.

I think you always have critics being more vocal than people who support a view. So I think there was some of that. I am surprised by the comment about Magda, but it makes sense now. She initially came out supporting us on social media and then went quiet for a while. More generally, this is a spirit of the times problem. It’s not about the profession or about any profession. 

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There is this idea of there being authorities. Those authorities cleave to a narrative and anybody who challenges it is wearing a tinfoil hat or something to be slurred and slandered, as opposed to being able to engage and debate. It’s wrapped up in this whole ‘cancel culture’ and I think extends more broadly to identity politics and postmodern relativism. These are all strands of the same thing that lead to this kind of view that it’s about the loudest voice and it’s about the authority figure. 

We have had all sorts of allegations of being armchair epidemiologists or not being healthcare actuaries. There were various ideas that never addressed the substance of the argument. That’s been a real problem here, because had that substance been addressed, the models that were used in this country would not have been so bizarrely wrong. 

The policy decisions might have been better informed by outfits such as the NICD (National Institute for Communicable Diseases), the MAC (Ministerial Advisory Committee), SAMRC (South African Medical Research Council) and the Actuarial Society. I think that would have gone very differently, if there had been a normal process of engagement and discussion.

Are they listening now?

It’s hard to generalise. We had a meeting with the NICD, and the feeling I walked away with is that they were just looking for holes in our work, that it wasn’t really a legitimate engagement seeking to understand. They were on the defensive. SAMRC – perhaps partly our own fault – has also been a little bit of a testy engagement and there’s been no engagement with the MAC. I suspect there will be at some stage.

Our current posture is that we’re making an appeal to public health people to come out and make a firm stance. Professor Karim going on national media and saying there’s second waves coming, reinfection problems and there are long-term effects. At the same time, he’s saying in the MAC minutes that lockdown should end. He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth. 

There’s no scientific basis for the threats that he’s seeing. He went out and predicted a resurgence in cases when the lockdown was lifted. We know that lockdown has no impact. There was no resurgence in cases. At some stage, he has to start listening to us and realise that his own perspective on this whole epidemic is wrong.

Perhaps listening to what’s happening elsewhere in the world. Because presumably that’s where you get a lot of your information from?

That’s been a fascinating part of this. Twitter has been astounding. You have all of these people who are in similar positions to us all over the world. For whatever reason, they’re shouted down if they stand up and speak against the narrative. So what they do is they take to social media behind pseudonyms and pump out their work there. It didn’t take long before we were connected to people.

A general paper in an area cannot be published for minutes before it’s circulated among that group. If it’s good, if it’s of relevance, if somebody is, read it and said, that’s it. So we’re getting all the live information. If somebody gets an interesting perspective, I’ll have seen it by the end of the day. 

The quality of the engagement is amazing. Where trust has been built up, we’ve managed to make direct contact with the people and engage in real Zoom conferences. We’ve picked up a number of people in PANDA in that fashion. Very little of the insights that we talk to are generated by us. There’s a lot that we’re getting from this international community and it’s work of great quality, we believe. 

It’s interesting you mention that, because when I discussed with South Africa’s only living Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor Michael Levitt, he said the same thing. He said he loves Twitter. He’d never known about it before. But now, he can publish things and people can come back at him with questions, support or ideas of looking in different directions. Yet, for mass society, Twitter has become a den of fake news, character assassinations and so on. So you’ve got this group of people who really are seeking knowledge, who are using Twitter to that end. Whereas others, perhaps, are using it to their own self-interest. Interesting to contrast those two? 

It is interesting. I think it’ll take some decades before we fully understand the dynamics of these social media systems and how to use them more effectively in society. What pressures can be brought to bear on their evolution to make them more of a net positive? 

But Levitt is fascinating. He made that same point that we saw, seeing it as a potential existential crisis, this lockdown mania. It really is amazing. The science – prior to Covid – is firmly against lockdown. The World Health Organization, the CDC, any number of epidemiological journals, any number of epidemiologists. They’re all uniformly against everything we’re hearing about now.

The lockdowns, the school closures, the international border closures and the cloth mask wearing. All of that sits there in the epidemiological literature as being stuff you shouldn’t try.

Then along comes China. Suddenly, everybody’s taking a policy steer from China, which at the same time that it’s locking people down, is as also rolling out a genocide against the Uyghurs and shutting down a number of civil liberties in Hong Kong. What possesses you to take a policy sphere from China other than some weird political ideology or fear? I think it’s a combination of the two.

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Is there any impact of South Africa’s close relationship with China – through BRICS – which we were invited into by them. Do you think that played any role in the approach that South Africa followed? 

Yes, I do. Although, it must be pointed out that South Africa followed a path that initially wasn’t different from the rest of the world. What’s been different about ours is the absurd duration of the lockdown. I don’t want to get into that. I have some understanding for where this came from and it’s a bit disturbing. I do find the close relationship with China very disturbing. 

This is one of the most illiberal countries in the world. The irony is that all the growth that’s had has been from the extent to which they were prepared to to liberalise. Now they’re stopping and the growth is slowing down. It looks to me like a project that’s destined to fail. I’m not one of these people who sees China as the future of the world. I don’t think they’re ever going to make the jump to liberalism.