‘The Science’ is necessary, but good public policy…


The stock phrase employed by politicians ‘we are following the science’ can become a ruse, or a fig leaf for maladministration and incompetence. Make no mistake, a scientific breakthrough can be vital (life-saving), but in the meantime, poor public policy, hidden behind ‘we are following the science’ can do a lot of harm to public trust in science.

It’s fascinating watching John Steenhuisen doing what John Steenhuisen does; picking at wounds, indulging in ambulance-chasing politics, and positioning himself in the contest for the leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA). Recently he criticised President Cyril Ramaphosa’s public absences and said the president was a “spectator” during the pandemic. 

While I don’t have any insights into workings of the ANC or the presidency, I understand the need for the president to allow public management of the Covid-19 pandemic to proceed without micro-management or daily meddling. Imagine a president that meddles in everything (on Twitter) several times a day, and how deleterious that can be to public servants getting on with doing their jobs. 

Anyway, on 12 July Steenhuisen also tweeted that “Government must have the humility to ask the private sector for help and must learn from what is working in the Western Cape”. I would guess the government is, indeed, consulting the private sector, but does not see the need to inform Steenhuisen of its every move. Steenhuisen was right, of course, to point to policy failures on the provision of beds and field hospitals.

It is on public policy, and taking responsibility for public policy failures, where the government ought to be challenged. I will insert a caveat here; no government in the world has been adequately prepared for the pandemic. Maybe John Steenhuisen knows of one. But I doubt that he will share that information with us…

For instance, when the pandemic reached its apex in the Italian region of Lombardy, the government there grappled to contain the spread of the virus. They could not find space and beds in intensive care units in the region, to the extent that the sick were being placed in operating rooms or in hospital corridors. In fact, when the city of Bergamo, in Lombardy, was the epicentre of the virus, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that the scientists would make their recommendations, but in the meantime, people had to follow the rules. In other words, it’s not just “the science”. It’s government regulations.

But context and cogitation are not Steenhuisen’s strong points; even if they were, it would just ruin a good story. The problem, if he were really interested, is public policy. He would consider evidence from around the world and the failures of the most advanced countries like the US or Britain. But the DA blues and what remains of the slaughtered purple cows have great difficulty in grappling with the sweep of mass-scale historical forces, and how (virtually) impossible it is for South Africa to provide beds and infrastructure in the way that the US or northern Italy did – least of all because of the very serious political economic inequalities among countries. But even in those countries, there were infrastructure problems – notwithstanding great scientific institutions.

‘The Science’ is necessary, but insufficient

The doozy is Steenhuisen’s demand for “the science”. So tweeted Steenhuisen: 

Why would government keep this info from the public if they have ‘followed the science’ I would be fascinated to see the ‘science’ behind gambling, full taxis and gatherings of 50…”

This was a response to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize reportedly withholding ‘the science’ from the public. I should say this slowly, and carefully, as if Steenhuisen is George W Bush (and because I love science).

Politicians should not hide behind “the science”, nor should they use “the science” as a ruse. Besides, throwing around references to “the science” may have the problem of eroding faith in science – and that is a real danger. It’s like calling everyone you disagree with a fascist, and when the real fascists show up, the term has lost all value and meaning.

And so, when politicians say they have simply followed the science (with bad policies), the public may lose faith in science. For instance, science may produce a vaccination (and we celebrate the scientific breakthrough), but without equipment, infrastructure (human and material), and in the face of rampant rent-seeking and the simple incompetence of unqualified people deployed to important positions, “the science” can lose its credibility. The stock phrase employed by politicians “we are following the science” can also become a fig leaf for maladministration and incompetence.

The focus should be on public policy

Steenhuisen would do his followers, and the country, a big favour, and make himself relevant (I can never work out what the point of Steenhuisen is), if he kept his focus on public policy failures. To the extent that what I write may actually provide insight, Steenhuisen might look at the global picture. The US is descending into a pandemic pit because of the public disobeying regulations. This has nothing to do with “the science”. Down Under, in Melbourne, the city has gone into “hard lockdown” because of bad public policy – not “the science”.

In the US (especially in Arizona) people have also ignored government advice (some followed suggestions that disinfectant would save them), and we now have masses of infections. Arizona, Florida and South Carolina are now the world’s top three Covid-19 hotspots.

Melbourne went into hard lockdown because requests for cleaning resources were ignored for months. The BBC reported that five million Melbourne residents have been told to stay at home for six weeks, amid a surge in coronavirus cases. In each of these cases, it has been public non-compliance and a lack of human and material resources – not because of “the science”.

Steenhuisen’s search for relevance, his boast that “hundreds of thousands of South Africans” who have tuned into his Corona Cast (I don’t suppose he has evidence of the “hundreds of thousands”); his general nitpicking during the greatest pandemic to hit the world in the last 100 years — not a single country being adequately prepared, with relatively few success stories — and his demand to see “the science” all seem pretty desperate.

None of this takes away all the things that the ANC-Alliance has screwed up over 25 years. It simply means — and for what it’s worth, I have, with a couple of phone calls, acquired knowledge of this — the government is working overnight, every night, to prepare for “a worse next-day scenario” on getting public and private institutions prepared for worst-case situations. They know that the science is valuable, but it won’t amount to a hill of beans if there are no beds, ventilators or nurses. Sure, they are following the science, but they’re not hiding behind “the science”.

And anyway, it helps to know how science works. I wonder if Steenhuisen has given this any thought. DM

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