“The National Coronavirus  Command Council”, which for past 10 weeks has governed our lives sans any input from parliament, sounds ominous enough to be plucked from the old Soviet Union playbook.

Actually it is far more a case of command than council. On Sunday evening, beyond the clichés and warmed-up rhetoric of Cyril Ramaphosa, he suggested that his self-selected “consultations” with various role players were sufficient. There would, it is implied, be no opening for you, dear ordinary citizen, to have your say on the regulations to be introduced to govern us under level 3 of the lockdown. Not only is this arguably unconstitutional (yes, do remember there is such a document, although most members of the command council with their bewildering and erratic edicts seem wholly ignorant of it), but it directly contradicts the process followed with the previous level regulations.

Mind you, our new-old national commander, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, entirely cherry-picked the inputs which pleased her prejudices and ignored the thousands which did not. She also famously refuses to share her documents or papers which inform her decisions with the public. She is an authoritarian and she infantilises the adult population.

Before returning to the old dictatorial Soviet Union, the place the command council regards as its spiritual home, the most ominous report at the weekend totally contradicted the entire rationale for the lockdown strategy and its huge social and economic costs.

If you can remember through the befuddlement of around  70 days of house arrest, the essential purpose, indeed only justifications, for the lockdown, was to slow the spread of coronavirus and better prepare the health services for the flood of expected Covid-19 cases requiring hospital admission.

Contrary to the impression often given, it was not about allowing ministers extreme powers, perfecting socialist utopias, or allowing our poorly trained army and police to run amok. It was about prepping the hospitals and protecting the health workers.

That’s why a report in the Sunday Times is so alarming. It relays that in the core purpose of the entire lockdown the government has failed us and reneged on its key promise.

Headlined “Last-minute rush to build ventilators”, it reveals how the national ventilator project “launched amid fanfare by the department of trade and industry more than two months ago” has yet to even determine which local companies will be shortlisted to manufacture a whopping 15,000 ventilators needed for an estimated 30,000 ICU beds being readied for the coronavirus surge.

As a side note it was interesting to read that several hundred are to be imported from dreaded Israel, which suggests that should any member of the local chapter of BDS (boycott, disinvest and sanction Israel) require admission to hospital, they will decline to be hooked up to a Zionist-originating machine.

But local manufacturers suggest that the target date for local production, given the inexplicable delays in ramping up the project, is “near impossible”. The local company that has produced a prototype ventilator stated that production would have to have started months ago, and yet the companies to produce them have still to be named.

This calls into question what the trade and industry minister has been doing. The answer of course is determining which clothing you can buy and why Woolworths should be banned from selling cooked chicken.

The other curious feature of the Sunday-night Ramaphosa speech was his claim that the government “appreciate(s) the diverse and sometimes challenging views of the scientists and health professionals in our country, which stimulate public debate and enrich our response”.

Really? Tell that to the Marines, as the saying goes, or in this instance to Prof Glenda Gray.

She had the temerity to indicate the emperor had no clothes, or in this case that current lockdown strategy was “nonsensical and unscientific” and “devoid of truth”. Gray is president of the SA Medical Research Council and the government’s ire is apparently aimed at her marginal remarks on malnutrition, although the broad brush of the attack is seen by hundreds of her fellow academics as suppression of free speech.

The clunking fist of government against Gray, in this case by the soon-to-be-former acting health director-general Anban Pillay at the behest of his minister Zwele Mkhize, has two echoes, neither of them remotely reassuring.

From the history of the Soviet Union comes the case of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. He was a plant breeder who rejected genetics and the theory of natural selection. He believed in the discredited theory that organisms could acquire characteristics from their environment and pass them onto their offspring. Lysenko insisted that his views agreed with Marxism and by 1938 had the support of Stalin and the politburo for them. He was made president of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences and began persecuting scientists who did not toe the party line on genetics and evolution. Many of his colleagues who rejected his unscientific nonsense were arrested and sent to the Gulag where many perished. Only in the 1950s, after Stalin died, did the Soviets admit Lysenko had been wrong.

It is perfectly true that other than her public bullying by the government, Gray is not heading to the Gulag. But she might be well purged and sidelined.

And here is the second echo, from our own recent past: when a certain minister, in the teeth of all accepted medical and research practice and protocol, insisted on pushing ahead with a sham cure for Aids based on a noxious industrial solvent, the Medicines Control Council (MCC) pushed back against this quackery.

The MCC in 1998 rejected the application of Virodene for a licence on the basis of fundamental flaws in its research protocols. But instead of accepting this response, the minister of health led a purge of the MCC chairman (Prof Peter Folb) and its registrar and deputy registrar.

And the minister who was pushing the false science and removing those who stood in her way? Why, that was one Dr Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma.

Mark Twain wrote: “History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in Times Select