The evidence is in: the lockdown has been a catastrophic failure

Written by Ciaran Ryan

Four months into the pandemic we have a clearer picture of the social and economic impacts of the lockdown.

It’s a catastrophe. The lockdown could kill far more people than the virus. At end July 2020, SA had 8,000 deaths from just short of 500,000 confirmed cases, for a case fatality rate of 1.6%.  Far more people will die this year from tuberculosis and diabetes than coronavirus.

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Yet more people will die from poverty-induced illnesses in the years to come. An April analysis by Pandemic Data Analysis (PANDA) estimated years of life lost to the pandemic to be 14 million, or 30X more than from the virus itself.

Bear in mind that around 450,000 people die in SA each year from all causes (446,554 in 2017 and 470,396 in 2016). Coronavirus is hardly going to move this needle, even slightly.

In late March 2020, the government’s official data modellers suggested 351,000 could die from Covid-19 in South Africa. PANDA was hastily formed to challenge this wild spreadsheet modelling. The team comprises actuaries, data analysts, economists and other specialists. PANDA challenged the government’s models, suggesting that it was more likely that 10,000-20,000 would die from the virus. Based on the current figures, PANDA is right on target as the virus infection curve maps a typical epidemic decline tail.

“What has happened in the last four months is the greatest social injustice in SA’s history since apartheid,” says PANDA co-founder Nick Hudson. “The lockdown is based on bad science, poor modelling and even worse judgment on the part of the government.”

The real effects will be felt in the years to come, and it won’t be from Covid. It will be from poverty and its associated effects.

It is not difficult to understand why: an estimated 6 million South Africans have suffered income contraction so far this year, and the figure will likely rise to 10 million by September. It is well known that poverty shortens lifespan. Economist Dawie Roodt estimated roughly 300,000 deaths would arise from lockdown-induced poverty, based on examples of rising death rates in countries such as Greece after the 2008 financial collapse. There is an undeniable link between economic decline and death rates.

Yet the headlines tell us that SA has the fifth-highest number of infections in the world. That’s grossly misleading, says Hudson, and an inevitable consequence of increased testing. A more instructive statistic is to look at deaths per million of population, in which case SA ranks number 36 in the world (and 22nd in terms of absolute deaths).

With the benefit of four months’ worth of data from around the world, we now know that there was little difference between countries embracing a hard lockdown and those that didn’t. The outcomes were more or less the same. There is simply no sign of the dramatic suppression of the reproduction rate that modellers assumed. Yet government has abrogated its responsibilities to a team of data modellers and epidemiologists who seem to be top-heavy with error-prone alarmists.

Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan and Anti-Fragility, is dismissive of economists and advisors who suffer no harm when the advice they peddle turns out to be wrong. We are in such a time now. Advisors urging extended lockdowns, as if we are living through the Black Plague, will still draw their government-guaranteed salaries at the end of the month, dispensing their wisdom via Zoom. If they were wrong at the start of the lockdown, why should we trust them now?

When the data proves them wrong, they do what self-preservation demands: double down by warning of a second and third spike in infections, lasting perhaps years.

SA is not alone in heeding advice from sources that deserve far more scrutiny than they are getting. UK epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who had Covid-19 himself, had to walk back his original outrageous projections of 500,000 UK Covid-19 deaths, when in fact the virus has claimed less than a tenth of this.

President Donald Trump’s coronavirus czar Dr Anthony Fauci co-wrote a paper in March this year arguing (correctly) that the virus affects predominantly the old and the very sick. He predicted the mortality from Covid would not be significantly out of line with a seasonal flu. “It was remarkable that he predicted this at such an early stage in the spread of the virus,” says Hudson. “But ever since then he has been lapping up every minute of fear-mongering that he can, He’s a panic porn artist.”

Initially, most of the country seemed supportive of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lockdown in the face of a viral attack the likes of which none of us had ever experienced. Yet we hoped it was temporary and the rights we voluntarily suspended – such as the right to work, move around freely, drink wine, smoke cigarettes, gather with friends – would be returned intact within a matter of months.

Now we’re not so sure. History teaches us that rights surrendered are seldom returned unalloyed.

Cabinet ministers and their government advisors who call for an extended lockdown based on erroneous data must be held to account. Their decisions will cause an unprecedented economic contraction of between 9% and 13% this year, but the effects in terms of poverty and declining wellness will linger for years. Blaming this on the virus and not the lockdown is the height of dishonesty.

By the end of June 2020 it was already clear that the infection curve in the Western Cape had peaked and was in decline. The same is now happening in Gauteng.

The type of modelling used in SA and elsewhere in the world is based on a completely erroneous reading of the actual data. It’s not that they lacked sufficient data on which to model their predictions. The Diamond Princess cruise ship presented data analysts with laboratory-type conditions with which to track and monitor the virus. This was a cruise ship sailing around the Pacific with 7,000 passengers, a large percentage of them old. In total, there were 12 deaths, all of them aged over 65. That’s a mortality rate of 0.2% of the ship population (in an environment in which it was difficult for anyone on self-isolate).

That presents an accurate picture of Covid’s spread in a confined environment. Yet senior academics trying to draw attention to the bogus science behind the global lockdown have been shut out of polite media circles, among them Dr Michael Levitt (born in Pretoria) of Stanford University, and Professor John Ioannidis, also of Stanford. Youtube has censored many who have questioned World Health Organisation (WHO) orthodoxy. There are dozens more senior scientists forced to get their message out on fringe podcasts and non-censored platforms. This is the “spirit of the times” in which we live, says Hudson.

Back in 1960 US-Hungarian psychiatrist Professor Thomas Szasz wrote The Myth of Mental Illness, arguing that undesirable behaviour was being medicalised and reclassified as “illness” with no science to back it up. He coined the term the “therapeutic state”. He warned us 60 years ago that the state wants dominion over our bodies and our thoughts., and would force “treatments” on us for the greater social good.

It seemed a long shot back then. Now it seems all too imminent.

Under no circumstances should a lockdown be permitted, says Hudson. “If there is a virus on the loose, people must choose their own risk-mitigation strategies. If you are afraid of the virus, then self-isolate, but you cannot force others to do the same.

“There’s something terribly wrong when you deny ordinary people agency in their own lives and their own health. People should be able to choose to stay at home, but have no right to force you to stay home. We want herd immunity, because that is how all epidemics are conquered.” It appears that the Western Cape is fast reaching that point in precisely the fashion projected by PANDA.

We need to demand our government acts on sound explanations and data. Because when this blows over and South Africans survey the wreckage, they will look for someone to blame.

We can’t pay R5bn sin taxes, says alcohol industry

By CAIPHUS KGOSANA and GRAEME HOSKEN – TimesLive

As the war over the ban on booze sales heats up, the alcohol industry has asked the government to suspend R5bn in sin-tax obligations until it is allowed to trade again.

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In a separate development, a scientist on the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) — which advises the minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, on Covid-19 issues — criticised the science used to justify reimposing the sales ban.

And professor Charles Parry, a director at the Medical Research Council (MRC), said he was surprised by the outright ban because the council had recommended only tighter restrictions on sales.

The National Liquor Traders Council, the South African Liquor Brandowners Association, the Beer Association of SA and Vinpro — a non-profit company representing 2,500 wine producers, cellars and industry stakeholders — have written to finance minister Tito Mboweni and the South African Revenue Service (Sars) saying the renewed ban on alcohol sales had left them no choice but to apply for deferment of duties payable for July and August. The organisations represent such companies as South African Breweries, Distell and Diageo.

Liquor industry spokesperson Sibani Mngadi said alcohol excise tax was imposed at the point of production, meaning the industry was liable for excise duties worth R2.5bn in July and another R2.5bn in August on products that are in warehouses and cannot be sold.

“The industry and its entire value chain are facing an enormous financial crisis, and its capacity to make these payments is severely constrained. The sustainability of the sector, now and in the post-Covid era, is dependent on this deferment if job losses are to be avoided,” Mngadi said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the immediate reinstatement of the ban on alcohol sales last Sunday, citing a sharp increase in trauma unit admissions since the ban was lifted on June 1. This had put extra pressure on facilities that were struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

The government is already facing a cash crunch due to plunging tax revenues caused by the struggling economy. Tabling his supplementary budget last month, Mboweni said SA would miss its original revenue target by more than R300bn this year.

Mboweni’s spokesperson, Mashudu Masutha, had not responded to questions about the liquor industry’s appeal by the time of going to press.
Estimates show the industry contributed R51bn in indirect taxes in 2019, with just over R33bn in excise duties and R17bn in value added tax (VAT).

The fiscus is also not collecting excise duties on tobacco, since a ban on the sale of these products was imposed when the lockdown was first introduced at the end of March. It is estimated that R4bn in tobacco excise duties has already been lost.

Bernard Mofokeng, tax partner at CMS RM Partners, said Sars was generally reluctant to allow postponement of excise duty and VAT payments because these taxes were susceptible to fraud.

“There is so much fraud in liquor and tobacco products, government is losing billions. It is already undercollecting,” he said.

Mngadi said the liquor industry was aggrieved about not having been consulted over the renewed ban. “We reiterate our commitment to partner with the government to create a social compact that drives behavioural change regarding the use and consumption of alcohol,” he said.

Professor Francois Venter of the Wits University Reproductive Health & HIV Institute, who is a member of the MAC, but not speaking as a MAC member, said traffic accidents were also to blame for trauma admissions.

“Look at admissions to hospitals when lockdown level 4 was in place and alcohol was banned. There were increasing trauma admissions related to vehicle accidents.

“People argue hospital beds are being protected, which is fair, but the unintended consequences need to be taken into account.”

Another member of the MAC, who asked not to be named, said there were major disagreements within the advisory body over the science relied upon to impose the ban.

“The slides we and the rest of the country were shown was half-baked science presented by known prohibitionists,” this person said. “If South Africans knew they would be furious, especially the alcohol industry.”

This council member said politicians were using the MAC to pass legislation based on dubious science. “The ban was definitely political. It points to the police and other law enforcement agencies being unable to police properly, especially around shebeens and drunk driving.”

Parry said the MRC had recommended tighter curbs on hours of sale for alcohol but not an outright ban.

“Our findings called for government to go the lighter route and tighten up on sale days rather than an outright ban because of the pushback that would come from people and the liquor industry,” he said. “It looks like government ran out of time. Honestly speaking, I was surprised by the ban.”

But Parry said it was irrefutable that banning or restricting alcohol sales led to declines in hospital admissions.

“[Research] showed the increase in admissions when the ban was lifted. Some hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal recorded 100% increases. Some Gauteng hospitals had 500% increases. Some Western Cape hospitals experienced a 60% admissions increase.”

He said that before the lockdown there were on average 42,700 trauma admissions a week in SA, across nearly 400 public tertiary hospitals.

“Of the alcohol-related admissions, 38% are violence related, 13% are accidents such as falls, 6% vehicle accidents and 2% self-harm,” Parry said.
“Each of these injuries has a burden on the health-care system. The cost of treating a stab injury in a state hospital is R5,352. To treat a vehicle-accident victim costs over R25,400, where a person spends one day in ICU and five days in a general ward.”

Govt promises to consider input as it seeks comment on lockdown regulations

This comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an immediate ban of the sale of alcohol and a curfew, forcing South Africans to stay home between 9pm and 4am.

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The public has been invited to make comments on the recently amended regulations to level three of the lockdown, with government promising to consider their input.

This comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an immediate ban of the sale of alcohol and a curfew, forcing South Africans to stay home between 9pm and 4am.

The government said that the decision to enforce stricter regulations followed the spike in new COVID-19 infections and related deaths.

With many of the existing regulations, including the prohibition of the sale of tobacco products and the non-visitation of family members, are under review in courts across the country. The government has chosen to tread carefully by consulting the public.

Although the comments will only be considered with the laws already enforced, Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said that the decisions were made in the best interests of South Africans.

Government has also defended its decision to criminalise the non-wearing of masks.

On the decision to ban visits among family members, the national COVID-19 command council has explained that this was due to the loophole this created for people to host parties and other platforms that had led to the surge in COVID-19 positive cases in some parts of the country.

Curbs don’t limit freedom, they limit Covid-19: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

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BY ERNEST MABUZA – TimesLIVE

Stringent lockdown measures announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday, including the suspension of liquor sales and the return of a night curfew were being imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said this in a follow-up briefing on Monday.

She said though SA was number 25 in terms of population size in the world, it is now ranked 10th highest in the number of Covid-19 cases.

She said SA ranked higher in terms of the number of new cases per day. “We must do everything to protect this beautiful nation of ours.”

Dlamini-Zuma said the announcement by Ramaphosa on Sunday was to combat the spread of the virus.

She said it was now a criminal offence not to wear a mask in a public place.

“When you wear a mask, you are not protecting only yourself but people about you,” she said.

She said if one did not have a formal mask, one could use a cloth or any material to cover the mouth and nose.

“Now it is mandatory. It is mandatory to wear a face mask because it is one of the measures at our disposal to protect ourselves and to protect people about us.

“The provision in the regulations now says the mandatory wearing of the face mask or any face mask, cloth mask or anything that you can use to cover your mouth and nose while you are in public.”

She said the regulation also says one cannot enter any form of public transport without wearing a mask. She said social distancing still remained important and people should avoid activities that disregarded those responsibilities.

“That is why social activities are still not allowed. So one of the things that we know becomes difficult when people are sitting together and continue to wear masks is also alcohol.”

She said when people are drinking in groups, they let their guard down.

“Their masks will go and social distancing will go. The spread will happen and we have seen it in many instances.”

She said drinking of alcohol socially brought people together and discouraged them from using masks, from social distancing and sanitising.

“More importantly when people have taken liquor, they get drunk, they engage in irresponsible behaviour, some of them become violent, they start fighting, killing each other.

“Even at home they become violent. When they get into their cars, they start driving recklessly, creating accidents.”

She said those people had to be rushed to hospitals, which means they were taking space that should be used to look after people who are ill and people who have Covid.

“Some of them need theatre, ICU beds and ventilators and taking away from those who are ill and who need it from Covid-19.”

Alcohol-related emergency cases diverted the services of medical personnel who should be in ICU looking after people with Covid-19.

“What happens then is the ICU gets full, beds in hospital get full and people who need those beds will not have access to them. It is for that reason that the cabinet has decided we need to suspend the sale of alcohol transportation and dispensing of alcohol,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

Dlamini-Zuma said the government was not limiting people’s rights.

“The government is trying to limit the spread of the virus because the spread happens through the movement of people. The virus is moved by people. It is spread by people. It is me who moves it. It is you who will move it. Part of limiting the movement is part of limiting the spread of virus,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

She said it was for that reason that the curfew was brought back from 9pm to 4am. Interprovincial travel is not allowed, except for funerals, work and business travel.