The Western Cape has the highest proportion of its population in the country as overweight and recorded the highest proportion of people with high blood pressure, says Pali Lehohla. Photo: Pixabay
The Western Cape has the highest proportion of its population in the country as overweight and recorded the highest proportion of people with high blood pressure, says Pali Lehohla. Photo: Pixabay

OPINION: Answer to Western Cape's covid-19 conundrum could lie in statistics

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Jun 18, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG – In South Africa there has been public discourse including controversy regarding coronavirus testing and those who are positive as well as those dying from it.

That Western Cape has become the epicentre of those infected and those dying has brought about extra interest from a point of view of politics and political management. 

The Western Cape is the only province not governed by the ruling party.  The recent appearance of the Premier of the Western Cape before the National Council of Provinces recently tended to elevate this point of view, which included questions on the extent to which the Western Cape observed the lockdown.  

Political interests are important in the management of democracy and this notion in the context of Coronavirus is not unbecoming. It is rather part and parcel of the management of the interface of political brinkmanship, bureaucracy and science.  

From conducting a census of 1996, I would confirm that from a point of view of keeping records and accounting adequately the Western Cape acquitted itself well, although it landed the Central Statistics Office in hot soup because then premier Gerald Morkel felt that the Western Cape was cheated of its fair share from the equitable share.  

Equally when I released the results of Census 2011, a lot of controversy emerged from the two Western Cape based experts that were part of an eight person team that the Statistics Council had assembled to assess, per statute, the work of the Statistician-General.

The Council concurred with the expert opinion and advised the president of the republic to accept the 2011 Census results. 

After releasing the national numbers I hopped province to province, including municipalities, to unveil their respective results. 

It was again in Cape Town where the rumblings were hatched that after presenting the results then premier Helen Zille would wittily ask me, “So Statistician-General you are saying we have been the fastest growing province and we have recorded the highest access to services for our population?”  

I answered that is the report of the Statistician-General Premier Zille. Of course the national election was two years away and Zille was adequately armed.  

Coming to coronavirus, the Western Cape has 10 percent of the population of South Africa yet it has 61 percent of coronavirus infections and 67 percent of coronavirus deaths.  

This is where the politics and measurement get confrontational. 

It is argued, rightly so and from the evidence that the Western Cape has tested a lot more people.  But it is impossible to see how measurement can be the cause of death. 

So the preponderance of deaths in the Western Cape due to coronavirus cannot be explained by the fact that they have tested more. 

Should it be that the medical profession is not reporting cause of death due to coronavirus correctly, just as they did during the HIV and Aids pandemic?  

But what would be unbecoming for such a distinguished profession would be why would they be reporting differentially by geography?  

I knew in Census 96 the skill base in the Western Cape was much better and the administrative hierarchy too was better organised.  

The difference in the compilation of administrative records between the Western Cape on the one hand and the rest on the other was largely driven by differences in skill levels.  

But this cannot be the case for the medical profession, which is uniform.  It cannot be, therefore, that the Western Cape or the rest of the country are classifying cause of death wrongly.  

What can we glean from the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey Report by Statistics South Africa?  

In this report the Western Cape has the highest proportion of its population in the country as overweight at 73 percent and 43 percent for women and men, respectively.  

It also recorded the highest proportion of people with high blood pressure at 20 percent and 36 percent for women and men, respectively.  

Could these broad indicators of its adult population be the cause of differentiated coronavirus mortality or it is ahead of the country and we are yet to witness similar patterns for the rest of the country?

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

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