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Charlotte Maxeke fire was like being in a movie, doctor says

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Jewish healthcare workers this week described incomprehensible scenes of mayhem and camaraderie as smoke from a fire at one of Johannesburg’s biggest public hospitals forced them to rush to evacuate hundreds of patients.

The disastrous fire at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (CMJAH), which broke out on Friday, 16 April, has been eclipsed by the fires which ravaged the University of Cape Town and surroundings this week.

The hospital has been temporarily shut while the extensive damage and destruction to the building is assessed. No less than 800 patients have been relocated to already over-burdened hospitals in the province.

Dozens of adrenalin-pumped healthcare workers and emergency personnel worked through last Friday night in suffocating smoke to ensure patients’ safety and continued care.

Some patients could walk, others were speedily carted around in beds, and dozens were transported in wheelchairs, many with IV drips and attached to oxygen.

Miraculously, there were no fatalities from the fire itself, but it’s believed many severely sick patients suffered during transportation to other facilities.

Professor Mervyn Mer, the head of intensive care at the hospital, was looking forward to his first weekend off in 13 months and spending time with his family when he was called with the news. He immediately helped from afar with emergency logistical arrangements.

“It has been a truly devastating saga. It’s heartbreaking for me,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

Mer was instrumental in setting up the innovative, ground-breaking intensive-care unit at the hospital last year, doubling the size of the unit and saving dozens of lives during the pandemic. His vision was to improve outcomes in the unit long after the pandemic. He doesn’t want to think about what the repercussions could be should the structural damage from the fire put an end to this dream.

“Life throws you curve balls, but you have to move forward. If we have to start again, we will. The damage is done, but the message is that the fire that was ignited in our healthcare workers to save and make a difference in people’s lives will never be extinguished,” he said.

His involvement on the day was peripheral, he said. “The real heroes were the men and women across the spectrum who were there making sure that patients’ safety came first.”

One of the Jewish doctors on call that day said nothing could have prepared her for this.

“It was an awful experience, one I will never forget,” she said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said she was still recovering from smoke inhalation.

What began as a normal shift at 07:00 on Friday turned into a horror movie a few hours later.

“At about 09:00, I was working in one of the clinics on the fifth floor when I smelt smoke and it began to irritate my airways. I thought at that stage we should clear out, but people said the fire was under control,” she said.

This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“Two hours later, the nursing sisters told us to move our cars. I started to fill out scripts and tell patients to come back as they couldn’t just wait in the smoke.”

She said there was heavy smoke throughout the day.

At about 16:00, she was needed in one of the wards on the ninth floor in Green Block.

“I noticed the lift was full of smoke, so I decided to take the stairs. The corridors were full of smoke, and so was a lift shaft coming from the parking lot all the way up to the ward.”

“There was confusion, we didn’t know where the smoke was coming from, and didn’t know where to take our patients. We were literally in the dark. We decided to take patients to the other side of the building by the entrance on the ground floor to get fresh air.

“The whole night was spent moving patients. At one point, they were breaking windows to get air. Some lifts weren’t working. At one stage, I was genuinely scared the building would give way. This was disaster management, nothing could have prepared me. People came from their homes to help. It made a huge difference, we had a great team.

“It felt like a movie the whole time. At some point, I thought things would slow down but they never did. I was running on adrenalin. I didn’t realise how much smoke I was taking in until much later.”

A Jewish senior trauma surgeon said it was a logistical challenge to relocate hundreds of patients.

Also wishing to remain anonymous, she said, “I was involved from the outside with contingency plans and moving patients. We started by making plans to move patients to the other side of the hospital. As the day progressed and the fire worsened, it became too hot for the firefighters and we realised the building itself may lose structural integrity. We then started plans to evacuate the entire hospital.”

There was a united front with additional help from the private sector, she said.

“We managed to find hospital beds throughout the province. Some of our sicker patients were transported with nursing staff to continue their care. The evacuation went on through the night. By late Saturday morning, we had emptied most of the hospital.

“Initially there was confusion about what to do. A lot of extra doctors came to help, and there was a strong sense of leadership. It’s a compliment to the medical and emergency fraternity that the operation went off fairly seamlessly without casualties. When the going gets tough, people in their numbers show up and go above and beyond,” she said.

Intensive-care nurse Ricki-Lee Serebro wasn’t on call when the fire broke out.

“Seeing your ‘home’ on fire is the most terrifying experience,” she said, “especially when it was happening and we didn’t know how bad it would get and how far it would spread. Even though I wasn’t at work, I was stressed about our patients and my colleagues and all the stock including PPE [personal protective equipment], which has been like gold this past year. I’m in awe of the hospital management, doctors, and nurses who transferred the patients so quickly to other hospitals.

“At the moment, I’m working in Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. The commute takes a lot longer – it’s more than 50km compared to 10km to the CMJAH. Being in a different hospital is exciting as we are learning different ways of doing things, however we are disorientated so everything takes longer. We miss our home. Hopefully we will be back there soon.”

Dr Barri Strimling, who recently moved to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital from the CMJAH said, “The CMJAH is a very special place. We have all given hours of our life to that facility. COVID-19 has taught us to think on the spot, and go to plan B. It has blown my mind how medical personnel and emergency services managed to orchestrate this evacuation to perfection. They are true heroes.”

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the blaze had caused severe damage to parts of the hospital. PPE to the value of R40 million that was stored at the hospital was lost in the fire. The cause of the fire and the extent of the damage is being investigated.

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Anglican ministers break ranks over church’s anti-Israel stance

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“What do you do when the leadership of an organisation you’ve spent your whole working life serving adopts a policy or position that your conscience won’t tolerate?” asks Reverend John Atkinson. He is one of four local Anglican Church ordained ministers who recently spoke out against the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA’s) anti-Israel doctrine.

Atkinson, along with Reverends Dave Doveton, Dudley Greenshields, and Allan Smith also wrote a letter to the United Orthodox Synagogues’ Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, thanking him for taking a stand against ACSA’s approach to Israel, especially in the light of his recent open letter to Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Dr Thabo Makgoba. In that letter, the chief rabbi said the archbishop was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”.

After receiving the letter from the four ministers, the chief rabbi invited them to meet him, which both parties said was very positive. “We wanted the chief rabbi and the Jewish community to know that there are many Anglicans who would find these policies offensive and a contradiction of our faith,” said Atkinson. “We may be sanctioned, but we aren’t afraid. Standing for the truth and against antisemitism is much more important.”

The group believes that ACSA’s anti-Israel resolution “expresses the ideological perspective of a small but influential elite, and by no means is representative of the average Anglican in Southern Africa. This is why we have made public our rejection of anti-Israel decisions and policies in our denomination”.

Between them, the four ministers have about 160 years of service looking after congregations within their denomination. Two of them were lecturers in theological institutions. All of them have a wealth of experience in their chosen professions.

They are close to retirement, so their careers are unlikely to be negatively impacted by speaking out. “It won’t make us popular, but that doesn’t worry us,” said Atkinson. “There are more people who would speak out if their careers wouldn’t be impacted.

“The average Anglican hasn’t thought about the Middle East at all,” he said, so the Jewish community needs to know that it’s not like three million people have turned against Israel. The ministers will therefore work to increase education and awareness.

He was moved by the meeting with the chief rabbi, and hopes that it “will open the way for greater dialogue between our communities and a greater appreciation of the values we share”.

Delving into why they have taken a stand, he said “this crisis of conscience was precipitated by a resolution that was passed at the highest decision-making body in the denomination in 2019 to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [movement] and call for a boycott of Israel. The resolution also called on local bodies within the church to adopt these measures.

“Since then, the chief rabbi has had discussions with the Anglican Archbishop, only to be rebuffed. This has been of particular concern because of rising incidents of antisemitism in South Africa,” said Atkinson.

In the letter to the chief rabbi, they wrote, “We want to convey our assurance to you that not all Anglicans support the aforementioned [anti-Israel] synod resolution. Indeed, we are appalled that people in our church would even think of proposing such an antisemitic stance and shocked beyond belief that the synod would uncritically and without any debate pass the resolution.”

A synod is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration, or application.

They said they weren’t against the criticism of any state and its policies, “but the one-sided diatribe against the government of Israel elected by the people of Israel and the total alignment with certain militaristic organisations bent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland is beyond belief”.

It had caused “much grief and disappointment, as it casts a slur on all of us. The simplistic analysis ignores the role of other countries and organisations who play a direct and indirect role in geopolitics and conflict in the region, and one suspects is meant to advance a propagandistic narrative and shut down other points of view. Certainly, no representative of the Israeli state was invited to give their perspective at the synod.”

The ministers said that “to lay all the blame on the Israelis amounts to scapegoating, which as you are all too painfully aware, is a classic hallmark of the scourge of antisemitism”. They were also deeply disturbed by the resolution calling on them to boycott Israeli companies. “What a terrifying reminder of the horrific genocidal acts against the Jewish community in Europe,” they wrote.

They disagree with the assertion that the present state of Israel isn’t tied to “the historic Jewish nation recorded in the sacred scripture that we as faith communities share. We believe that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to undermine Israel’s right to exist, and is against the historical record. This, too, is a mark of antisemitism.”

They questioned why a church which is based thousands of kilometres away from the conflict “should be so committed to the promotion of one narrative and the total exclusion of the other. If our church is so concerned about the lives of Palestinians, why was it silent about the deaths of 3 383 Palestinians in Syria? We believe the answer is obvious.

“We would like to assure you that we will remain faithful and vocal about Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against attack,” they said. “We will continue to engage with other Christians on these issues to ensure that the pro-Palestinian narrative isn’t the only voice that is heard.”

“The significance of their letter struck home to me powerfully,” Goldstein said. “It shows that there is another voice within the Anglican Church and the Christian community in South Africa, so many of whom love and support Israel and appreciate its role in the world.

“We can easily make the mistake of thinking that certain politicians or religious leaders speak for the country when they come out with such anti-Israel vitriol,” he said. “This letter is indication of a much broader movement of South Africans who have a completely different view. It’s important for us to know that we have many allies and friends across the length and breadth of this country. That’s why I wanted to meet with this group who wrote to me, to express to them on behalf of our community how much we appreciate their friendship and their partnership in getting this message out.

“I’m sure that their letter will encourage others to come forward. Often people feel intimidated and don’t want to speak out. We need to create an environment in South Africa where all citizens can come forward and show their support. There is an enormous groundswell of the silent majority of South Africans who support Israel. I met this group to encourage them to get the message out so that more people can come forward and express their true views.”

Going forward, the ministers will work to “encourage the support [of Israel] in the Anglican population and beyond”, according to Atkinson. “The Jewish community can assist us in this endeavour by communicating with Christians they know about Israel and the Jewish perspective of the Middle East.”

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The miracle of the maroon handkerchief

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Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.

Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.

A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.

“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.

Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.

In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”

A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.

“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”

So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.

She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”

She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”

Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”

Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.

Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”

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COVID-19 vaccination could be compulsory at workplace

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As vaccination becomes more freely available in South Africa, questions arise such as can you make vaccination compulsory and can you dismiss someone if they refuse? Do you have to allow time off to get vaccinated, and what happens if an employee has an adverse reaction? These questions and many more are new to our labour law, and will be subject to litigation over the next many years.

In terms of the department of employment and labour’s latest regulations, the minister has recognised that employers may in terms of their own internal rules make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory.

Obviously, the compulsion must be subject to certain oversight, and must be reasonable in all circumstances. The employer would have to take into account their own operational requirements, and must be able to justify that in terms of these requirements, they would expect employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Over and above this, each case must be carefully explored, discussed, and subject to proper consultation, taking into account the employee’s circumstances. These circumstances can include medical, religious, bodily integrity, and any other factor reasonably raised by the employee or the employee’s representative.

Obviously, each particular employer would develop a set of guidelines and rules which would be read with the disciplinary code and would be properly implemented after consultation with the employees or their representatives.

These rules must be made subject to the above-mentioned criteria, and would probably be differently implemented in accordance with the operational requirements of the position of the actual employee.

For instance, if a buyer for a company has the duty to travel abroad and can do so only if vaccinated, then there would be a compulsion to be vaccinated. It would be incumbent upon the employer to explore whether there are other ways of doing the job or whether an employee is willing to accept another position which doesn’t require vaccination.

It’s absolutely vital for every employer to read the regulation, and to advise all the necessary parties within the next three weeks of their intention to make vaccination mandatory and which employees will be affected.

Obviously, even once vaccination has been made mandatory, it would be subject to the employees being able to obtain the vaccination, and might require the employer to help obtain them. The employer’s policy will take into account various factors such as consultation with all the representatives at the workplace, and will respect bargaining council agreements and any other collective agreements with trade unions.

If there is an informal committee representing the staff and/or a workers forum, these bodies must also be consulted.

The minister of health has published draft regulations for the establishment of a no-fault compensation fund for injuries caused by the COVID-19 vaccination. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund will be established in terms of the regulations as an amendment to the regulations of the Disaster Management Act of 2002.

Although this compensation fund for vaccine injury hasn’t been formed yet, the various ministers involved are taking into account commentary from the public, and will be getting legal advice from parliament’s legal advisors.

The injury must be related to vaccination. An injured person may not institute a claim through the court process against the national or provincial government until the claim has been adjudicated by the relevant panel through the compensation fund.

Only if the person is dissatisfied with the outcome of the adjudication or the amount awarded can that person lodge an appeal, and the appeal must be determined by the relevant decision maker. Only after pursuing a claim with the scheme can a person look to the courts if that person is still dissatisfied.

Businesses are urged once again to warn their staff that protocols are in place, and breach of COVID-19 rules and regulations will lead to spread of infection and almost inevitably disciplinary action.

I’m involved in no less than a dozen cases where employers have reported and taken action against recalcitrant employees. It’s time, once again, to reiterate the fundamental, basic rules such as social distancing, mask wearing, and sanitising. Over and above this, any staff member exhibiting symptoms must report these symptoms to their health officer or senior management, and should immediately take sick leave.

The consequences of a staff member remaining silent could be loss of their position and more seriously, the spread of infection.

Employers will have to educate staff about the value of vaccination along with normal social distancing, masks, and hand sanitising. Education in these circumstances, I believe, will be the strongest factor in convincing all staff to get vaccinated.

A consolidated direction on occupational health and safety measures in certain workplaces was gazette on 11 June 2021. This contains new requirements with regard to vaccination.

It’s clear from this that an employer must give employees time off to be vaccinated. The employee may be required to provide proof of an appointment to be vaccinated. Time off shouldn’t be regarded as sick leave, but should be given as a form of special leave.

If there are negative effects from vaccination, the employer will grant paid sick leave in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. If the sick leave has been exhausted, there could be a claim in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. Employees will produce the vaccination certificate thereafter, and a medical certificate if they’ve had complications.

  • Michael Bagraim is an attorney specialising in labour law, and advises nationwide on the restructuring and management of labour forces. He is also a Democratic Alliance member of parliament.

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