The scientific community’s support for South Africa’s management of the coronavirus outbreak risks being undermined by the health ministry’s harsh response to criticism from a leading expert.
Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council and a member of a virus advisory council appointed by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, told local media on May 16 that some government measures to deal with the outbreak were unscientific and cases of malnutrition had been detected at the country’s biggest hospital.
Mkhize has accused her of lying while Anban Pillay, the acting director general of the health department, demanded that the research council investigate her conduct.
“You cross the line from accountability to a witch hunt when you say I now want to investigate someone because of remarks they made,” said Adam Habib, vice chancellor of Johannesburg’s University of The Witwatersrand. “That, I think, can have very dangerous consequences for society and the management of this epidemic.”
The spat has echoes of attacks on experts who stood up to former President Thabo Mbeki when he questioned the severity of South Africa’s Aids epidemic despite it being the world’s largest. His administration’s failure to provide treatment probably caused the premature deaths of more than 330,000 people between 2000 to 2005, according to a 2008 study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
A petition supporting Gray has been signed by more than 300 academics and the Academy of Science of South Africa decried the call for a probe, which the MRC’s board agreed to.
“Academics and researchers need the space to undertake independent research in an environment that is free from fear, intimidation and political interference,” the association said in a statement on Monday. “To threaten researchers and to muzzle their voice would have a chilling effect on creativity, innovation and experimentation.”
Mkhize last week disputed Gray’s comments on malnutrition and rejected her statement that the government was ignoring scientific advice.
“What we cannot tolerate is a person making false statements,” Pillay said in an interview on Monday. “The MAC advises the minister on health matters, not economic matters.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has attempted to defuse the crisis, which threatens to erode praise for his administration’s response to the pandemic by closing borders and imposing a lockdown. The government appreciates “the diverse and sometimes challenging views” of scientists and health professionals, he said in a televised address on May 24.
Gray declined to comment. Emails to the secretariat of the research council and Johnny Mahlangu, its chairman, weren’t answered.
In a letter to Pillay, seen by Bloomberg, Mahlangu apologized for Gray’s conduct, said an investigation would be undertaken and requested a meeting with the acting director general and the minister. In later communications, the council said Gray had been cleared and she thanked the MRC for its swift action.
“Scientists were very very negatively penalized during the Aids dissident era,” Habib said. “I don’t think we are there with this. I don’t want us to create the circumstances where we go there.”
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