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Chaos and catastrophe – COVID-19’s ‘annus horribilis’

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Exactly a year ago, COVID-19 entered our living rooms as news broke of the first case of the dreaded disease striking a member of our community.

Johannesburg businessman Gary Sweidan’s private WhatsApp video started doing the rounds. The post informed his friends about testing positive for the virus following his return from a trip to New York.

Along with alarm and dismay, the virus hit the community barely a week or so after the first few cases were detected in KwaZulu-Natal by locals who had travelled to Italy.

Sweidan, 44, soon became the community’s poster boy for calm in the face of the COVID-19 curse after his post went viral followed by panic, stigma, and terror.

He and communal organisations went into overdrive to foster unity, allay fears, and equip people with what little knowledge was available.

“Last year was chaos,” Sweidan told the SA Jewish Report this week. It still baffles him that his wife never contracted the virus even though she sat next to him on the long-haul flight when he first started to feel symptoms.

“There is so much about this illness that is still unknown. I guess you can say I was lucky in that I didn’t land up in hospital, but I felt horrible make no mistake, and it took me months to get over the fatigue,” he said.

Marking the anniversary, doctors worldwide have taken to reflecting on an incomprehensible year that caught them totally off guard.

“We did suspect that a pandemic such as COVID-19 would ultimately be unleashed on an unprepared human population,” said Professor Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“Many of us in the virology community believed it was a matter of time before a widespread pandemic of an animal-sourced virus would cross the species barrier and spread rapidly into a vulnerable human population. But we didn’t foresee how it would actually turn out.”

Also the chairperson of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, Schoub said that in retrospect, experts should have been more alert and responsive to certain cues.

“The combination of humans intruding into animal ecosystems, the caging, transporting, and consumption of exotic animal species, together with the globalisation of human movement, have all ensured that an event such as a global pandemic of COVID-19 would be inevitable,” he said.

However, he agreed that no one could have anticipated and have prepared for the explosive pandemic of a respiratory-spread virus which COVID-19 turned out to be.

Specialist physician pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital said the effects of the disease had been “unprecedented and overwhelming from the scale, the severity, the clinical spectrum of this disease, to the effect of this virus on the human body”.

It had behaved in a way that was “completely dissimilar” to the usual seasonal coronavirus influenza infections doctors were used to.

There is the early viral-response phase, which generates symptoms that people are used to by now. If you have mild COVID-19 illness, it means that your immune system has controlled the disease, Zinman said.

“However, a percentage of people go on to a more severe form of COVID-19 with direct involvement of the lungs and every other organ in the body,” she said.

“The lay public have learnt a new vocabulary from this disease which includes the words ‘cytokine storm’, a term we dread as it heralds the onset of the severest form of COVID-19. Another unanticipated element is the hypercoagulable state associated with this infection, causing clotting in small and large blood vessels.”

The pandemic rapidly became a scientific challenge of the utmost urgency, and the global scientific community all become students of this new disease, said Schoub.

“The challenge was met head-on and with incredibly rapid progress and success. Within 10 months of isolating the virus, a protective human vaccine had been developed and rolled out into the human population.”

Doctors and healthcare workers across the spectrum understand the disease better now than they did a year ago.

Said Zinman, “We know how it’s transmitted and know what behaviour is considered safe in terms of preventing infection. We know what the ‘danger signs’ are, and have learnt which medication is effective and which has proven to be of no benefit. We understand immunity better than we did before.”

Sadly, said Schoub, the cost to society of the past year of COVID-19 has been high, as medical science struggled to cope with the new emergency.

“Faced with a menacing and dark threat, societies are wont to respond in three ways,” said Schoub. “First, by taking refuge in conspiracy theories, much of them authored from science fiction. Second, by vainly searching for a miracle drug, often by trying to repurpose medications designed and used for other purposes such as Chloroquine in the first wave and Ivermectin in the second wave. Third, by pushing the blame game, sometimes fuelled by an ever-eager, sensation-driven media.”

While so much has been learnt, doctors agree that there is no “magic cure”.

“There is no pill or injection or anything else that will make it go away,” said Zinman.

But the management of patients has advanced significantly. While there is no anti-COVID-19 drug, there is oxygen therapy, steroids, and anticoagulants. And of course, there are vaccines to lessen the severity, although there is the growing threat of “immune-escape variants”, said Schoub.

“We also know what doesn’t work,” said Zinman, citing antiretrovirals, antibiotics [unless there is a bacterial superinfection], Chloroquine, and convalescent plasma. Ivermectin remains unproven, with preliminary controlled studies showing lack of efficacy.

Zinman said doctors had come to terms with the disease’s “unpredictability”, and the devastating effects on multiple systems in the body.

“We’re better off because we’re comfortable with COVID-19 as a disease. The medication prescribed is very familiar now, and can be written by rote. The bloods we use to monitor our patients with have become standard practice. We recognise the extreme anxiety present in our patients and manage it, trying to make the whole experience more bearable. We’ve surrendered to a completely different way of practicing medicine without compromising standards,” she said.

“We’ve learnt a lot, but there is still a lot to learn.”

The second year of COVID-19 will again see cycles of waves, said Schoub, especially as winter approaches.

Its control will still depend only on human behaviour as the vaccine rollout progresses towards achieving community immunity. He hopes the pandemic will be brought under control in 2022.

“Medical science has learnt a lot over the past year, and we can only hope that the knowledge gained will make the biomedical fraternity better prepared and equipped for the next animal-sourced pandemic.”

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SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates

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As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.

And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.

Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.

Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.

No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.

Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.

The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.

“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”

In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.

“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.

“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.

“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”

They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.

He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.

Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.

Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”

He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.

“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”

Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.

Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.

The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.

Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.

In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.

Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.

He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.

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Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance

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The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.

“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.

“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.

“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.

“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”

He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.

“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.

“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.

“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”

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Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel

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The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.

“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”

Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.

Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.

Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.

Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”

Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.

In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.

Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.

In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.

However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.

“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”

Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.

Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.

At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”

Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.

Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.

In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.

“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”

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