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Mozambique: Former Health Minister resigns from Covid-19 Commission – Watch

Mozambique’s former Health Minister, Helder Martins, has resigned from the government’s Technical and Scientific Commission set up to give advice on how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a letter to President Filipe Nyusi, Martins, who was Health Minister in the late 1970s, in the government headed by Samora Machel, says that the very conception of the Commission was wrong, in that it should not have been headed by a politician (i.e. the current Health Minister, Armindo Tiago).

Such a Commission “cannot be led by a politician, and a Minister, no matter how brilliant a doctor and academic he may be, becomes a politician on the day he takes office as a Minister”, said Martins. “Thus right from the start there was a clear intention of introducing political factors into the management of the epidemic. But an epidemic cannot be managed by politicians”.

Martins, whose letter has been published in several of the independent media, including the daily paper “O Pais” and the newssheet “Carta de Mocambique”, said initially he was prepared to give the Commission the benefit of the doubt, and see whether Tiago, whom he accepts is a brilliant doctor, would be able “for a few hours a week to forget that he is a Minister”.

“Experience showed otherwise”, Martins continued. “He had no remedy other than to carry out diligently the role with which he has been charged”.

Martins also protested at the secrecy shrouding the Commission, which has been shut off from Mozambican society and from the media. “There was a higher decision that the Commission should be kept in an ivory tower, far away from everybody”, he accused.

Martins insisted that the Commission “should advise the country, and not just the government”. This was another factor that “reduced the impact of the Commission’s existence”, since such a Commission should play an important role in health education, and so “it must be open to society. Opening the Commission to society and to the media would have avoided a range of false news that circulated in social media, and only caused panic”.

Martins also protested that no attempt had been made to mobilise NGOs for the fight against Covid-19 – despite Mozambique’s long history of NGOs working successfully on many other health issues, including vaccination campaigns, family planning, or the fight against HIV/AIDS. This time no significant role was given to NGOs, and so their participation in work against Covid-19 has been minimal.

Martins believes that, had the Commission been open to society and to the media, then the political leadership itself “would have been better informed, more tranquil, less anxious, and less vulnerable to agendas transmitted by foreign television stations, giving news about the epidemic unfolding in countries with contexts completely different from our own”.

By thrusting the Commission “under a cloak of clandestinity”, the government could take decisions “without any scientific basis and without anyone knowing what the Commission recommended”. Martins revealed that on many occasions the government ignored the Commissions’ opinions, and sometimes did not even ask for them.

The worst such case was the government decree of 18 December last year which allowed the re-opening of casinos, bars and stalls selling alcoholic drinks (a decision that was reversed in mid-January, but by then the damage had been done).

Martins declared categorically that the commission would never have recommended the reopening of bars and casinos. This easing of restrictive measures “sent the signal to the public, and particularly to the Mozambican elite, that they should put an end to prevention measures”.

“The dramatic consequences of this relaxation, plus the unbridled opening to tourism during the festive season, unleashed a second wave of the epidemic and we are all suffering the consequences”, declared Martins.

“The government should take responsibility for this disastrous measure, about which the Commission was not consulted”, he added. “Once again it was proved that politicians cannot manage the struggle against epidemics”.

Martins thus confirms what anyone who watched television coverage of Mozambican Christmas and New Year parties would have seen with the own eyes. Large crowds happily jostling together, most of them not wearing masks, and without the slightest attempt at social distancing. It was hardly surprising that Covid-19 infection, hospitalisation and death rates all soared in January.

Martins also objected to the curfew imposed on the Greater Maputo Metropolitan Area. The recent history of public health did not suggest that such measures were effective – “it is enough to look at South Africa which decreed and implemented the most rigorous curfew, but it is the country worst hit by the epidemic in the entire continent. Obviously the curfew didn’t work”.

The matter was discussed in the Commission where it was highly controversial. A consensus was finally reached, Martins said, on a curfew running from 23.00 to 04.00 or 05.00 at weekends. This too seems to have been disregarded: the current curfew in force for Greater Maputo runs from 21.00 to 04.00 every day of the week. But, as television reports have repeatedly shown, people working in central Maputo, but living in the outer suburbs, have enormous difficulty in reaching their homes by 21.00.

For Martins, the curfew seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I cannot be regarded as an accomplice in such an unwise measure”, he wrote.

Source: AIM

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