Economics at your fingertips  

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
References: View references in EconPapers View complete reference list from CitEc
Citations: Track citations by RSS feed

Downloads: (external link)
Full text for ScienceDirect subscribers only

Related works:
This item may be available elsewhere in EconPapers: Search for items with the same title.

Export reference: BibTeX RIS (EndNote, ProCite, RefMan) HTML/Text

Persistent link:

DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105290

Access Statistics for this article

World Development is currently edited by O. T. Coomes

More articles in World Development from Elsevier
Bibliographic data for series maintained by Catherine Liu ().

Page updated 2022-09-28
Handle: RePEc:eee:wdevel:v:140:y:2021:i:c:s0305750x20304174