South African Medical Journal on Tuesday, called for level heads from the scientific community and government in an article titled “Freedom of speech and public interest, not allegiance, should underpin science advisement to government”.
Read the full article here.
Habib, Jansen and Singh said the South African government deserved praise for its response to Covid-19 so far, but “this praiseworthy scientific response to the pandemic has been tarnished in recent days”.
Gray, the president of the SAMRC and a member of the MAC, in her personal capacity, called certain lockdown regulations “unscientific” during an interview with News24 published on 16 May, sparking swift backlash from Mkhize and the Department of Health.
The authors said Mkhize’s response, a lengthy statement refuting some of Gray’s claims, was sharp, but fair, but that Gray should perhaps have engaged government officials and the minister prior to making public statements.
“However, the follow-up action on the part of Pillay, crossed the line,” the article read.
Pillay wrote to the board of the SAMRC on 21 May, requesting it to investigate Gray’s conduct, to which the board responded on 22 May, apologising and confirming it would lodge the probe.
On Tuesday morning, the SAMRC board issued a further statement, confirming it would not proceed with the investigation.
In his letter, Pillay noted that the SAMRC was “an entity of the National Department of Health”.
“Such a move is vindictive, disproportionate and reflects an intolerance to criticism. There is a fundamental difference between holding someone accountable and conducting a witch hunt,” the authors wrote.
“If one were cynical, it could be argued that the DG’s [Pillay’s] action is a choreographed chess move to precipitate the MRC president’s removal. Such an intervention amounts to executive interference in the governance of the MRC.”
Pillay’s actions, they said, was calculated to shame and intimidate Gray, which also had the effect of silencing other MAC members.
The authors further argued that the Department of Health and Mkhize had only limited powers over the SAMRC.
“In his letter to the Chair of the MRC Board, the acting DG noted that he had… ‘also received calls from persons regarding Gray’s conduct at the MRC on other matters which I will share once I receive more details from them’. Such comments are deeply concerning,” the article read.
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“The actions of the DG [Pillay] can be interpreted as calculated to not only cast aspersions on the character of the MRC President, but also to unconstitutionally dig dirt on her on unrelated matters and use this as a means of intimidation. This is untenable.”
The authors go on to state that if the Department of Health had previously received complaints about Gray, it should have acted on it.
“They cannot now use these unrelated complaints as a means to impair the incumbent’s reputation and thereby silence or remove her from office. This would constitute inappropriate behaviour unbefitting of a state office bearer such as a DG, and could warrant investigation by the Public Service Commission, and/or the Office of the Public Protector,” they said.
“[Mkhize] should demonstrate his commitment to freedom of expression by distancing himself from his DG’s actions, and directing the DG to withdraw his complaint. If health officials continue to interfere in the affairs of the MRC, the Minister should instruct his officials to withdraw. If the Minister is himself implicated, then the State President should intervene.”
News24 requested comment from Pillay regarding the article, which was not immediately forthcoming. Pillay’s response will be added once received.