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Gag the spreaders of disinformation, not the scientists

- Schalk Mouton

In times of a health crisis, such as the corona virus pandemic, health scientists should be encouraged to speak out.

As our lives are increasingly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, a wide variety of information and disinformation is being spread. There is no shortage of news, “advice” and rumours being spread about the virus. And this is all natural. Every single person in the world has by now probably been affected in some way by the pandemic. In some ways, we are acting in the extreme, as can be seen by the panic shopping that hit retailers on Monday, after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the pandemic was a National Disaster.

In response to the deluge of information, News24 reported on Wednesday that government had “effectively gagged epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists and other experts on Covid-19 with an instruction that all requests for comment about the state of the pandemic, the virus itself and its spread should be directed to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)”.

The article quotes Ministry of Health spokesperson Lwazi Manzi, as saying: “the government had decided that all communication should be centralised to just a few voices: ministers, deputy ministers, MECs and, sometimes, the presidency.”

What this means, is that in this time of crisis, with a few exceptions, only government’s version what is happening with the spread of the virus is reaching the public. 

According to Manzi, government wants to unify the message about the pandemic, and try to combat “fake news”.

You can’t have people from Lancet, Ampath, Wits, all speaking to the media. There is a need to differentiate between authority and noise," she is quoted as saying. Scientists, she said, should be left alone to do their work, and not be pestered by journalists.

Since my first contact with the NICD as a journalist many years ago, I have always had the utmost respect for this institution. You could always rely on them to give you quick, relevant and expert opinion, often assisting in dispelling untruths about perceived threats and health risks. This is still true today. However, they don’t have the resources or capacity to deal with a constant stream of media queries. Relying on them as a single source of information might prove to be counterproductive.  

If the government’s intention is indeed to try and prevent the spread of panic or fake news about the outbreak, this is exactly why scientists and experts should be allowed to speak freely and openly to the media and the general public. The best way for disinformation to spread, is to leave a void open for pseudo-experts and disinformation peddlers to fill the gap.

In today’s world of social media, an information gap will inevitably be filled. It is especially true in a crisis situation, such as the one we have. There is an increasing need for information. This provides the opportunity for someone to take advantage of this by spreading false information for their own gain. The only way to combat this is to put as much truthful, reliable, scientifically correct information as possible out there, and to provide constant commentary and expert opinions from scientists to the media and the public in general.

South Africa has some of the best experts on virology, epidemiology, infectious diseases and public health in the world. During this crisis, it is crucial that their voices be heard. It is they – and not some government minister or spokesperson – who can speak with true authority on their subjects. They should be encouraged to speak out, not gagged. 

Scientists not only have a constitutional right to share their knowledge to the public, they also have an obligation to do so. Like most ministers, deputy ministers and their spokespeople, most scientists salaries are paid – not by the government – but by the taxpayers. The taxpayers have a right to get clear, correct information from the right people in this time of crisis. 

My colleagues in the Wits university’s communication team have been overwhelmed in the by media queries looking for expert opinion, while experts and academics want to offer advice on how to best communicate their important messages on the pandemic. We actively encourage all our experts to speak out as much as possible, and provide all the necessary, relevant information that they can provide, on all available channels, including via the media. We have collated and shared as much information as possible on our dedicated COVID-19 mini-site on our website, and in the coming months will be frequently sharing information from our experts.

As communications professionals, we are acutely aware of the dangers of misinformation and fake news in times such as these. There are a lot of opportunists trying to spread fake news messages. It is these people who should be muzzled, not the country’s responsible, knowledgeable experts.

To muzzle scientists is to encroach on their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and academic freedom. It also contravenes the rights of the general public of access to information and a healthy environment. When you start gagging scientists in a time of a disaster, you are going down a slippery slope. Who will be the next to get gagged, under which circumstances? And, more importantly, who will be the decisionmakers, on who to muzzle, and who should be allowed to speak?

Schalk Mouton is a science communications professional working in the Wits communications team. He is a former journalist and news editor.