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Another way to look at SA’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

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OP-EDS

Going into our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been fed an ample diet of despair, blame, and negativity, especially when it comes to the vaccine plan – or perceived lack thereof. From what I gather from colleagues overseas, we’re no different to many other countries with a free press. In South Africa, fashioning a negative narrative isn’t too difficult.

To start with, the country last year failed to secure vaccines while so many Western countries were on a buying frenzy to pre-order the as-yet unproven COVID-19 vaccines for their citizens. Then, when South Africa eventually did manage to secure one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in February this year, no sooner had the vaccine landed on our shores than its distribution was stopped in its tracks and the consignment was “dumped” onto some other “hapless” African countries. There was still no vaccine.

Vaccination sort of started up at a snail’s pace via a phase 3b implementation study, using the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine to vaccinate with urgency our hard-pressed healthcare workers, only for it to be stopped again. Why? This time because of some vanishingly small risk of blood clots which were reported in the United States!

So, now in mid-April, a quarter of a percent of the country’s adult population have been vaccinated, compared to Rwanda, Ghana, and Senegal each having already reached 2.8%, 2.5%, and 2.3% of their respective populations with the first dose of vaccine.

Now, let’s look at another narrative on the same series of events.

Undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic has been a seriously damaging event. It has disrupted lives, cost livelihoods, hammered economies and, of course, not to mention, taken more than three million lives globally and at least 50 000 in South Africa. Infection-prevention restrictions have been uncomfortable, tedious, and mentally challenging. However, consider for a moment how challenging COVID-19 would have been had it occurred but 15 years ago, when it could have taken several years rather than 10 months to develop a vaccine.

Let’s consider if the government had listened to the howls from the media and also the handful of howlers from the medical profession, and it had bought up a population’s supply of vaccine, say AstraZeneca. We may then have been stuck with 80 million doses of a vaccine which science has shown may well be ineffective against the dominant variant of coronavirus in this country – B.1.351. Fortunately, it bought only one million doses, which was sold to other countries on the continent where B.1.351 is either non-existent or a minor component, and where it could well have been a lifesaver.

Universally, it’s agreed that first in line for COVID-19 vaccination are the country’s healthcare workers. Fortunately for South Africa, a well-planned clinical trial in this country included elderly participants who would be vulnerable to severe disease, ultimately what we would want to establish in a candidate vaccine. It showed that the J&J vaccine effectively prevented severe disease from B.1.351 coronavirus.

On the coat tails of that trial, J&J donated vaccine for our healthcare workers in a phase 3b implementation study, the so-called Sisonke programme, which commenced in February. The programme, like any other trial, comes with certain regulatory requirements. Among these is the appointment of independent monitoring boards including an ethical monitoring board. The latter is tasked with looking out for any safety signals among participants anywhere in the world where the study is being carried out, no matter how rare. Like any trial, once a safety signal is reported, no matter how rare, safety monitoring requirements oblige the ethical body to hit the pause button while the assessment is carried out. This pause isn’t a suspension of the trial, and is usually only for a few days. In the case of the recent clotting safety signal with J&J in South Africa, the pause lasted about four days. Clearly, a four-day pause out of a 90-day vaccination programme couldn’t have had a serious effect on the vaccination benefit, especially in a time of low virus activity.

The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out programme itself is planned to begin in May. It’s undoubtedly delayed compared to most Western countries and even a significant number of middle-income countries. Starting in May, it will be about four months later than Western countries. And yet, the number of COVID-19 deaths per million population in South Africa is less than half that of the United Kingdom (UK), the first country in the world to kick-off a national vaccination programme. The UK has reached 49% of its population with the first dose of the vaccine, and is only now coming out of the longest and most stringent lockdown in the world.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of those middle-income countries against which we are compared and which are well ahead of us in their vaccine roll-out programmes, are probably driving their programmes with vaccines which haven’t been approved by any stringent regulatory authority or the World Health Organization, and wouldn’t currently receive approval from our regulatory authority, SAHPRA (the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority).

Meanwhile, after much tough talks with vaccine manufacturers involving complex and difficult negotiations on procurement contracts and liability, sufficient amounts of the two premier vaccines, J&J and Pfizer, both effective against the B.1.351 variant, have been secured to vaccinate the entire adult population over 2021.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s another way to look at the half-filled vaccine vial.

  • Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. He is the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand. He isn’t employed by the department of health, receives no remuneration from the department, and isn’t a spokesperson for the department.

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1 Comment

  1. Franca Falanga

    Apr 22, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    Well balanced information that needs to be made more public

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OP-EDS

SA media’s anti-Israel bias verges on incitement

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Nuance, context, fact checking, and, above all, reflecting both sides of the story when the issues are sharply contested, are the sine qua non of professional journalism.

This is particularly true when it comes to reporting on any conflict, whether involving individuals, communities, or entire countries. Conversely, uncritically reflecting the narrative of one side while minimising – if not disregarding altogether – the version of the other side isn’t journalism. Rather, it’s dishonest propaganda masquerading as such.

Over the past week, the distress of the Jewish community over the renewed violence in the Middle East has been compounded by the local media’s palpable failure to adhere to the most basic standards of journalistic rigour in terms of reporting what has been happening.

With few exceptions, mainstream news outlets have unquestioningly regurgitated the exaggerated, emotive, and frequently inflammatory claims of the hardline anti-Israel lobby while routinely omitting the Israeli perspective.

From print and online media through to radio and TV channels, a distorted picture of brutal, rampaging Israeli oppressors victimising helpless, blameless Palestinian victims has been served up again and again, without introducing even a small measure of balance to temper that false picture.

It’s obvious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict invariably elicits strongly-held opinions on all sides. Even the salient facts of the situation are sometimes disputed, which is often true of most conflict situations.

Journalists who wish to convey an accurate picture of this fraught subject must be especially rigorous in order to maintain proper standards of truth and objectivity. That entails careful fact checking, reflecting competing narratives, avoiding exaggeration or sensationalism and, in general, making a reasonable effort to present opposing points of view fairly.

This isn’t to say that professional journalism necessarily entails never having an opinion of one’s own. As is all but inevitable, news reporting will often to some extent be slanted towards a particular point of view, especially when it comes to issues where the salient facts are hotly disputed.

This is certainly true about the conflict between Israel and her neighbours. To expect the media to be completely neutral on that question and just report “the facts” may be unrealistic. However, the manner in which the recent violence on the Israeli-Palestinian front has been reported in the local media is something else entirely.

What we are witnessing instead is the journalistic equivalent of unquestioning group think, an unseemly rush on the part of editors, reporters, and opinionistas of every stripe to convey a single, rigid ideological orthodoxy.

This kind of “four legs good, two legs bad” approach is of course standard fair in authoritarian regimes. The question we are confronted with is why it has come to dominate the way in which Israel is being portrayed even in democratic countries, and perhaps most glaringly in South Africa, where antipathy towards Israel is deeply rooted in the ideology of the ruling party.

As has come to typify reporting on “clashes” (an often-used word by reporters) between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s invariably the response of the first rather than the provocation of the second that dominates the headlines.

In reports, we are seeing, as we saw in previous confrontations, how Israeli counter-strikes against terrorist positions in Gaza and their impact on the population have eclipsed any understanding of the unprovoked barrage of lethal rocket fire against Israeli cities. So there is no understanding of what necessitated such retaliation in the first place. Cause and effect have simply been reversed.

The ostensible cause of the current unrest goes back to the controversy about ownership of certain properties in the neighbourhood of Shimon HaTzadik/Sheikh Jarrah. The media’s unreflecting take has been simply to rehash the standard propaganda canard of rapacious Jewish settlers attempting to drive Palestinians out of their homes in “occupied East Jerusalem”.

The legal background to this case is complex, with roots going back nearly 150 years to the era of Ottoman rule and preceding the emergence of the modern-day Zionist movement itself. Yet, in the age of electronic communication, that information was readily available to anyone wishing to portray the situation as accurately as possible.

Suffice to say that little or no effort has been made in that direction. Equally mendacious is the way in which the violent altercations between police and protestors on the Temple Mount have been portrayed as a case of jack-booting Israeli stormtroopers brutalising blameless and peaceful Palestinian worshippers. Given the profound sensitivities surrounding religious freedom, and particularly when relating to this profoundly fraught and contested part of the world, this arguably crosses the line from mere anti-Israel bias to outright incitement, not just against the Jewish state but, inevitably, against Jewish people everywhere. It is, to say the least, irresponsible.

One small silver lining that we can take from this fog of misinformation that the media has been so complicit in propagating is that we are fortunately no longer reliant on mainstream media outlets for our information.

There exist today a plethora of online resources enabling anyone genuinely interested in learning about these issues to fill in the gaps that our inveterately biased media have helped to create.

Our challenge today must be first to educate ourselves, and from there hopefully go on to educate those who in spite of the ceaseless indoctrination that confronts them at every turn are still open to listening, engaging, and making properly informed choices about what to believe.

  • Rowan Polovin is the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation.

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OP-EDS

The law of the land is the law

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When it came to the tragic events at Mount Meron over Lag B’Omer, the writing was on the wall, say many who have written and spoken about it in Israel over the past few days.

It followed disastrous political policy in past years (preceding Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition governments, but gaining momentum under him), which has enabled the Haredi community in Israel to develop a model of exterritorial behaviour – behaviour which assume that the rules don’t apply to them. This reality isn’t dictated by their special needs as a community, but by their politicians as a show of strength.

The only thing that’s legitimate to say to the families of the victims, those who lost their lives, and those who were injured in the compound around the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is that we send our heartfelt condolences and want to find ways to help them in any way possible.

Their pain is immeasurable, and the impact of this awful, tragic event on their lives will accompany them into the future. We need to care for the widows, the orphans, and we will. That’s who we are, and I’m proud of this fact.

And it’s exactly because we care for the widow and the orphan that our response to what happened cannot end with condolences.

We have a responsibility to all of those who live with us as citizens, residents, or visitors to our country, to ensure their well-being and safety. It’s to that end that we created an extraordinary vaccination campaign during this time of pandemic. Our national health system (kupot cholim) ensured that vaccines were available to all, irrespective of whether they acknowledged the legitimacy of the Jewish state or not. It’s to that end that the Israel Defense Forces defends all those who live in this country whether they live in Bnei Brak, Um Al Fahm, or Tel Aviv. Viruses and missiles are blind to ethnicity, faith commitments, and political ideologies.

Similarly, when it comes to taking responsibility for the public domain, for health and safety, for building ordinances, for roads, for large-scale public events like sports events, religious gatherings, rock concerts, it’s the state and its agents who must not only take responsibility, but also face responsibility for all of these spaces and situations, irrespective of which populations are involved.

There is no difference between what needs to be done on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, the Arad Music Festival, the Kotel during the priestly benediction, in Tel Aviv during the large Gay Pride Parade, at Meron on Lag B’Omer, and in Rabin Square during mass demonstrations of any political group.

So why was this allowed to happen? We have lived with a model of separate communities who very rarely interact with each other in meaningful ways for a very long time. Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, modern Orthodox, and Haredi. All living most of the time in our separate tribes and only occasionally – usually in times of trauma – coming together as am echad (one people).

The voices coming out of what happened in Meron are diverse. There is the voice which says, “This is the will of G-d.” There is the voice which says (very quietly most of the time), “The Haredi community had this coming to them. Just look how they ignored the rules during Corona.” There are political voices which are already manipulating the situation as they desperately try to form a new collation to rule in coming years (this is the crocodile-tears voice).

To this I wish to add my voice with a very clear Talmudic concept, “Dina d’malkhuta dina.” This powerful statement, which appears four times in the Babylonian Talmud, means quite simply, “The law of the land is the law.” I choose to use a phrase from within the codex of Jewish law for the obvious reason that this tragedy was a tragedy which had an almost exclusive impact on the Haredi community.

It’s therefore the duty of the Israel political and administrative leadership to go to this community in a language it understands and make it clear that they are acting on their behalf; make it clear that, as this community is an integral part of Israel by virtue of them living here, and irrespective of the attitudes they may or may not have about the secular nature of many of the laws of the state, they deserve to be cared for by the state. One of the ways the state cares for its citizens is by enacting laws and ordinances which ensure the safety of all of those who live within its boundaries.

Politicians who don’t act in this way, whether from the left or the right, secular or religious, are acting in a criminal way, are endangering the people of this country, and have to be removed from office. Only then will our people here (and remember “our people” includes, in my definition, everyone who lives here) be safe and be able to pray, dance, cheer, and march in large numbers.

  • Julian Resnick grew up in Somerset West and made aliyah with Habonim Dror to Israel in 1976. He lives on Kibbutz Tzora with his little tribe of wife, two of his three children, and his five grandchildren. He guides and teaches in Israel and around the world, wherever there is a Jewish story.

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OP-EDS

What will it take for me to go back to shul?

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(JTA) When I was very young, what motivated me to go to shul on Shabbat morning was the fire station two houses away from the synagogue.

My dad was the rabbi of the only congregation in Annapolis, Maryland, and shul attendance was a family affair. If I behaved during services, my big brother would take me to the fire station afterward, and sometimes the firemen let me sit at the wheel of the hook-and-ladder truck. That made my week.

In recent days, I’ve been thinking a lot about my various experiences with shul attendance over the years. The sad truth is that though I’m fortunate enough to have received my second COVID-19 vaccine more than a month ago, I haven’t been back to shul and I’m not sure why.

It’s ironic because these past few years, I’ve really enjoyed shul – the services, the rabbis, the people, the singing. In my early years, not so much.

As kids, learning to read Hebrew and becoming familiar with the prayers, the goal at services was to be the fastest.

When I was about 10, I attended a family wedding in New York and stood in awe as I took in the sight of what seemed like hundreds of men in black hats and dark suits swaying fervently as they recited the afternoon mincha prayer. I zipped through the silent Amidah and was waiting for the service to continue. A few minutes went by and then a few more minutes until it seemed everyone had finished.

I asked my brother what the holdup was, and he pointed to a very short older man, eyes closed, still in fervent prayer.

“That’s Rav Aharon Kotler, the head of one of the biggest yeshivas in the world,” he told me.

“What’s taking him so long?” I asked. “Can’t he read Hebrew?”

As I got older, I learned about the importance of kavanah, or intention, putting one’s heart and mind into the words we were saying as we prayed. But during my teenage years, prayer was associated more with obligation than choice.

Over the years as an adult, with shul attendance no longer coercive, I have been blessed to have belonged to three synagogues (in the three states where we lived) that were true houses of prayer. And in each of the shuls, what I have enjoyed most in the service is when our joined voices blend in song, stirring a kind of transcendent feeling of collective prayer and community.

Then came COVID-19, and we had no choice but to stay home. I missed the rhythm of walking to and from shul on Friday evening and Shabbat morning, feeling part of the spirit of the kehillah (congregation), and often lingering after services to catch up with friends.

But I became accustomed to staying home, and that had its own pleasant pattern: sleeping later, praying at home, spending more time with my wife and, when the weather allowed, meeting friends – six feet (1.8m) apart – on a bench outside.

I know I’m not alone in my ambivalence about going back to shul now. Going back would be good for the congregation, and probably for us, even though the prospect of COVID-19-limited attendance, singing, and socialising is less than appealing.

Are we just lazy or fearful of becoming sick? Or have we become dependent on the safety and security of keeping close to home?

What would get me back to shul? No, it’s not the prospect of visiting a nearby fire station after services. It’s the chance to ignite a spark of faith and commitment, and time to take the next step back on the long path toward normalcy.

So there I was, on Saturday, back in synagogue. Sitting alone, at least six feet away from others, and wearing a mask, felt isolating at first, like praying alone in a room in spite of others around me. But gradually, the mood lifted and the familiar comfort of the prayers – and the warm (if muted) greetings from fellow congregants – made me feel at home again. I could get used to this.

  • Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of ‘The Jewish Week’ from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.

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