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The dangers of performative scientism as the alternative to anti-scientific policymaking: A critical, preliminary assessment of South Africa’s Covid-19 response and its consequences

Sean Muller

World Development, 2021, vol. 140, issue C

Abstract: At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic South Africa was praised for decisive political leadership based on scientific advice and the strictness of the measures it imposed to limit domestic spread of the virus. This paper critically examines the South African response through two conceptual frameworks. The first frames an optimal policy response as a solution to an intertemporal welfare-optimisation problem. The need for governments to balance epidemiological considerations and public health measures with the negative consequences of non-pharmaceutical interventions to limit transmission is particularly acute in developing countries. The second considers the use of scientific evidence and expertise through the lens of scientism – undue deference to science. The South African government erred towards drastic action in the face of predictions by some scientific advisors of a catastrophe, but initially without a clear, public long-term plan. Its lockdown has caused serious economic and societal harm across a range of measures. But these costs have not been matched by proportional benefits in health system preparedness or, based on evidence three months into the epidemic, a definitive improvement in expected long-term epidemic outcomes. This failure, and the questionably confident basis for the original lockdown decision, has been obscured by the government’s performative scientism – a public performance of deference to science – even in the absence of transparent decision-making. One consequence was a slower correction of strategy than merited by evidence of limited benefits and high costs of the lockdown. Another was an unwillingness to admit and explain errors after the fact. The latter, combined with the convincingness of the initial performance undermined the behavioural dimension of policy – leading to beliefs among citizens that confounded efforts by the state to adapt its policy stance through reopening schools, reducing the stringency of clinical guidelines and resuming various economic activities while nevertheless observing basic social distancing precautions.

Keywords: Covid-19; Public policy; Scientism; Welfare economics; South Africa; Africa (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2021
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Persistent link: https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:eee:wdevel:v:140:y:2021:i:c:s0305750x20304174

DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105290

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