Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa, says the coronavirus and the importance of statistics is in the public eye and doesn't even need the help of his famous yellow suit to punt it. Photo: GCIS
Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa, says the coronavirus and the importance of statistics is in the public eye and doesn't even need the help of his famous yellow suit to punt it. Photo: GCIS

OPINION: Statistics take centre stage in fight against Covid-19

By Dr Pali Lehohla Time of article published Apr 15, 2020

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PRETORIA - As Covid-19 disrupts the world at no time in South Africa has statistical evidence been as important and in the public spotlight.  

It has proved that statistics is an investment worthwhile making.  

The timing of this though is ironic.   

First, it is driven by the tragedy brought upon us by the Coronavirus.

Second, this comes no more than a month after the Statistics Council threatened to resign if the government failed to fund Statistics South Africa's shortfall of R 200 million.

However, at a grave moment for South Africa, which is in lockdown, on Easter Monday Dr Zweli Mkize and Dr Abdool Karim revealed the beauty of statistics and science.  

They seized the stage with a sobering somber message. Coronavirus has placed statistics on the pedestal of power and authority at the most awkward of times.

Statistics need no further strategies for advocacy.

Not even my famous Yellow Suit could play out the act like Coronavirus on matters evidence.

The politician scientist Mkhize and the scientist Karim disemboweled those who wish to deny the power of evidence and the need to fund it. 

Key to this two hour blow by blow, nail biting and somber delivery on Monday night, they went through a full treatise of the key features of evidence, which are data as infrastructure, statistics as a summative reflection of what happened and statistics as a lens into the uncertain future through modeling and model-based planning.

Mkhize and Professor Dr Abdool Carrim presented the evolution and progression of the coronavirus.

Threatening and severe as their presentation was, though, they breathed the necessary air of freshness and elevated transparency to levels hitherto not seen in public policy making, which has been embedded in spin. 

A colleague of mine, after the President marshalled his forces on Coronavirus three weeks ago, said “We now have proper leadership. So refreshing without politics and with action.”  

My retort surprised him as I commented: “No sir, we need informed politics.  Facts without politics are an unimplementable farce.  Just as hollow are politics without facts.  Look at how great a politician, the president becomes by navigating his solutions by following the searing brightness of facts.  Without facts the politician is naked and is forced to remember a massive library of spin.”   

The duet of Mkhize and Karim was very liberating and despite the bad news that the message contained was received with unparalleled appreciation by the general public. 

People do not fear a future, even if threatening, if they can confront it.  What they detest and what immobilizes them from action is spin.  This is because it undermines and steals intelligence and saps energy.  

This is the time for statisticians, economists, scientists and all professions to rise.  We can enrich the texture of our political, social and economic life.  This is what active citizenry is about.  President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mkhize and the professions have demonstrated how it can be undertaken wherein all of us contribute science based solutions to problems.  May it become a sustained practice in South Africa.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General and the former head of Statistics South Africa.  Meet him at www.pie.org.za and tweeter @Palilj01. 

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