Health minister caught between politics and medicine

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize needs to abandon the autocratic attitude for the greater good of the nation and realise that the likes of Professor Glenda Gray and her counterparts are critical in our response to Covid-19, writes Dr Shafrudeen Amod

2020-05-28 09:30:00 AM

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize needs to abandon the autocratic attitude for the greater good of the nation and realise that the likes of Professor Glenda Gray and her counterparts are critical in our response to Covid-19, writes Dr Shafrudeen Amod

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize needs to abandon the autocratic attitude for the greater good of the nation and realise that the likes of Professor Glenda Gray and her counterparts are critical in our response to Covid-19, writes Dr Shafrudeen Amod.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize needs to abandon the autocratic attitude for the greater good of the nation and realise that the likes of Professor Glenda Gray and her counterparts are critical in our response to Covid-19, writes Dr Shafrudeen AmodThe breaking of ranks last week by the much-respected medical scientist Professor Glenda Gray could, at face value, be viewed as rebellious act or as an outburst fuelled by strong convictions.

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However, in the context of South Africa’s current waning and weakening response to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, it should rather be seen as a necessary diatribe by a desperate medical scientist frustrated by an imperious department of health.Read:

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize is tasked with the unenviable position of coordinating South Africa’s public health response to this pandemic.The pandemic aside, his greatest challenge is navigating between being a medical doctor and a politician.Sadly, Gray’s statement incurred the wrath of an authoritarian politician seeking vengeance for his wounded pride.

In short, the reaction did not match the action.The Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) was formed and tasked by Mkhize. Its membership consists of some of the most esteemed medical scientists in South Africa.It must be stressed that members of the committee are participants in their individual capacity and do not represent any constituency, organisation or sector. So in essence nothing prevents a member from commenting in their capacity as a member of their particular organisation or as a citizen.

Across the world, scientists and sceptics alike criticise governments in their countries.Government should not feel “victimised” by the criticism and the sheer volume of criticism that it receives from the scientific community.The scientific community that challenge the status quo, ask questions and require proper data and information deserve more respect and a greater degree of transparency.

Everybody is desperate for information on this pandemic. We know too little of the virus to hold back data and information and should encourage divergent views. If anything, we can learn more by agreeing to disagree, without becoming disagreeable.Gray may not have taken the most diplomatic approach in talking to News24, but she certainly had relevant and pertinent questions as the head of the esteemed SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), but also as a citizen of this great democracy.

It is worrying that the minister chose to dismantle Gray’s statement piecemeal. This gives me and perhaps a majority of the scientists an uncomfortable degree of pause.Shafrudeen AmodThe lockdown was perceived as flawed in its implementation.Yes, there are no experts on lockdowns nor on Covid-19, but there are highly trained people in various sciences to piece together policies based on other countries’ experiences.

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The purpose of the lockdown was to reduce and delay the spread of the virus but far more importantly, to buy time for preparedness.Ideally, as the lockdown is eased, we should increase our rate of testing and our public health measures of test, treat and isolate.

We should have also prepared our hospitals and healthcare workers for the onslaught of the peak.We seem to be failing, based largely on media reports about hospitals and infections, and the resultant frustration and criticism such as that of Gray aimed at the regulations and government becomes increasingly justifiable.

If the health minister or the MECs of health were more transparent then the scientists and experts would not have to rely on the media.It seems that Mkhize has undertaken damage control rather than wheedle the esteemed professor “back into the fold”.It is worrying that the minister chose to dismantle Gray’s statement piecemeal.

This gives me and perhaps a majority of the scientists an uncomfortable degree of pause.It should be a decisive time for South Africa, not a divisive one.What is expected of the MAC members? To passively sit back and watch a mysterious political agenda bury the growing body of scientific discord?

Why did Mkhize not defer the issue with Gray to the MAC chairperson as that would be the logical step?What level of transparency and accountability can the scientific community expect from the MAC?Comparing the MAC on Covid-19 with other advisory committees that are in place is frankly disingenuous of the minister.

With due respect to the other ministerial committees, the Covid-19 MAC is unique in its composition and function, and it is addressing a national and international public health emergency.He merely utilised this to justify his heavy-handed approach to Gray’s comments.

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As South Africa edges closer to the precipitous edge, this episode is an unnecessary distraction.Shafrudeen AmodI could wax lyrical about our great democracy and the freedom of speech that our constitution enshrines.I could criticise the sad impasse that Mkhize has now reached of being caught between politics and medicine.

Rather, I choose to focus on the “winter of our discontent” in South Africa.Now is indeed the winter of our discontent and sadly there is no glorious sun.Honourable minister, there is no sensationalism, unprofessionalism nor is there any hint of deceit.

There is a government that is under growing criticism from scientists, economists, actuaries and most importantly the ordinary citizens.You have been entrusted with the responsibility of the health portfolio and as such you are accountable to every South African.

With this great responsibility comes greater accountability.Rattling off statistics for a few minutes every night does not instil confidence in your citizenry.Roaming the country making random appearances, jesting about with fellow ministers, does not appease the masses.

Arranging public relations presentations pretending to be utilising the “best scientific advice” in your decision-making does not inspire the nation anymore. These are not personal attacks sir, it comes with the job.As South Africa edges closer to the precipitous edge, this episode is an unnecessary distraction.

The resultant backlashes are mounting and are quite frankly, unnecessary.Mkhize needs to abandon the autocratic attitude for the greater good of the nation, and realise that the likes of Gray and her counterparts are critical in our response to the pandemic, and as scientists, that is their job.

There has to be better communication, greater accountability and a sense of transparency that the nation can trust.The minister needs to clarify the role of the MAC and reconsider the composition. When three out of four chairpersons express concern and dissatisfaction, then he must take notice.

Covid-19 will be with us for a while, so the MAC will be needed for an indefinite period. As such, the confidence in it must be restored and respected.When the autonomy of an organisation is challenged, then the integrity of that organisation is brought into question.

The chairperson of the MAC’s role must be clarified; both in terms of his relationship with his counterparts at the MAC and with the minister.His silence throughout this debacle is rather unusual.The natural course of action for Gray was to approach the chairperson, so she either chose not to or could not for reasons that both Mkhize and Gray should explain.

The absence of medical ethicists on the committee is a surprising omission. We have a group of esteemed scientists with great achievements.There are bound to be differences in opinion and clashes of ego.The addition of an ethics committee will ensure accountability and good scientific practice within the committee and in external communications.

This committee can also deal with internal complaints from the members who feel sidelined.Mkhize, the MAC chairperson and the relevant chairpersons should provide weekly media updates so that the statistics are explained and everybody can provide the relevant input, beyond just the numbers.

This ensures accountability and informs the enquiring and confused citizenry who have great expectations.The SAMRC issue (the acting director-general of health’s letter) must be dealt with swiftly by Mkhize himself and he must also clarify the so-called “damage” to governments work on Covid-19.

Gray merely disagreed with the regulations and reinforced all the non-pharmaceutical measures.Finally, the entire world is affected by this pandemic.The extent to which they are affected depends largely on how their governments responds to the pandemic – and a government with people capable of thinking from different points of view, will deal more successfully with the pandemic than one that autocratically acts only on the opinions of a favoured few.

Amod is a medical law consultant and healthcare practitioner, specialising as a clinical pharmacist.This article was produced for– health journalism in the public interest Read more: City Press »

Politics are not the answer to Covid 19 Scientists are. His ego will never allow it. She is a white pretty blond woman with a much higher IQ than his own. It is a 'man' thing Hayi suka nonsense! What autocratic attitude is this that is being referred to. The likes of Gray must know that their remarks like any person in an democracy are not beyond reproach. If she’s making falsehood she must be told so and account for it. Like everyone else🤷🏽‍♂️

Animthetheleli maan🙄 margzstarpie What makes ppl think 'greater good of the nation' is major process? COVID19 is a golden opportunity for the real major process, heavy handed social, political and economic re-engineering aka RET - burn the house & rebuild it our way. Footnote: We'll do it better than Zim did

This is nonsensical! Now she is being cast as the victim and Minister Mkhize as an autocrat while she is the one who lied about a very serious matter. I hope Minister Mkhize stands his ground and must continue to call out for Professor Gray to be held accountable for her lies. Dr MKHIZE was correct I would have done exactly the same as him! He had to defend government in this scenario

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