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Clearing the confusion around Omicron

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Question and Answer

Less than a month ago, the word “omicron” was meaningful only to the Greek community. It’s the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, leaving only nine letters for future variants. Since Omicron made its debut in mid-November, there has been a deluge of media reporting, more dinner table conversation, and possibly even more social-media communication. One could say that on occasion, information about Omicron may be a tad fanciful or perhaps confusing, if not, maybe, even a trifle contradictory.

To some it will lead to alarm, to others complacency, and to others, perplexity.

So, what have we learnt so far, and what are we in the process of learning? It basically comes down to the uniqueness of this new kid on the block which has caused scientists and authorities to be very guarded in their communication and certainly in their predictions.

What’s so different about the Omicron virus?

  1. It’s a completely new variant coming off its own independent evolutionary tree, and therefore unrelated to any other previous variant;
  2. It possess far more mutations than any previous variant, more than 30 in the spike protein alone, and more than double that of Delta, previously the infectivity superman of variants;
  3. Many of these mutations have never before been seen and, of course, it’s not known how they will affect the personality of the virus; and
  4. The constellation of these numerous mutations is also unique.

Clearly, much remains to be unravelled about this mysterious new variant and how these mutations, or combinations of them, could translate into its behaviour.

We are now well into the fourth wave, and it’s clearly being driven by Omicron, so, where we are up to with this newest challenge?

  1. How dangerous is Omicron? Is it causing more or less severe disease?

Many of the clinically ill patients infected with Omicron have been mild to moderate. Certainly, the great majority of those infected after vaccination have been mild. Nevertheless, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of hospital admissions in Gauteng and, to some extent, in KwaZulu-Natal, which reflects the more serious cases. This early pattern was also seen in the early phases of previous COVID-19 waves. The majority of these adult hospital admissions have been in unvaccinated individuals.

What has been striking in this early phase of the fourth wave in Gauteng is the steep rise in the number of hospitalised adolescents and children – steeper than anything seen before. It has been especially notable in the Tshwane metro, where it was reported that the incidence of infection, even in under five-year-old children in public hospitals is second only to that of the over 60-year-old age group. This may well be due to gross under-vaccination of the 12 to 17-year-old age group and absence of vaccination in under 12-year-old children. In addition, apparently very few of the adult carers of these children were vaccinated.

  1. How effective is the current vaccine in protecting against Omicron?

An increasing number of breakthrough infections, in other words infections occurring in spite of vaccination, are now being seen with Omicron. Fortunately, in the great majority of these cases, the resulting illness has been mild and, in many cases, the COVID-19 infection was picked up only incidentally. Importantly, we can be reasonably confident that COVID-19 vaccines will be very effective – well over 90% – to protect against severe illness due to Omicron. The level of protection against mild illness or protection from just simply being infected, would, however, be somewhat less than that – perhaps more like 50% to 60%.

  1. How transmissible is Omicron?

One of the very prominent early features of Omicron has been its high transmissibility. The numbers of daily cases nationally have risen dramatically from 169 on 3 November to 273 on 17 November, 4 373 on 1 December, 16 366 on 5 December, and probably much more by the time you read this. The reproductive number – the measure of transmissibility which is determined by the number of susceptible individuals who could be infected by an infectious person – is presently 2.33, the highest it has ever been since the start of the pandemic.

  1. Will the Omicron variant replace the Delta variant?

The ability of a virus to multiply in a given environment is referred to as its fitness. This is determined by two properties – transmissibility (i.e. contagiousness) as well as its ability to escape from immunity, both natural immunity which follows infection and also artificial immunity following vaccination. On both transmissibility and immune escape, Omicron betters all its competitors. It’s probably about 50% more contagious even than Delta, the erstwhile champion of variants. It’s probable that Omicron will now outcompete Delta to become the dominant variant in South Africa and likely also globally.

  1. How long will this fourth wave last?

Of course, this is something one cannot predict now in this early stage of the fourth wave. Past waves have lasted between 75 to 100 days. There’s good evidence that the fourth wave may not be as severe as the previous three waves because of high levels of vaccine-induced immunity and high levels of post-infection natural immunity. But that may still depend on levels of vaccine coverage as well as attention to the infection-prevention protocols we all know so well.

  1. Can we go on holiday, can we have an engagement party, can we go to shul?

The answer is a qualified “yes”. The qualification is provided all attendees are vaccinated, and all of the well-known infection-prevention protocols are diligently carried out. Participating numbers must be limited, functions should be outdoors or, at least, in very well-ventilated indoor venues, proper mask wearing must be enforced, and adequate spacing provided for eating. The elderly and the vulnerable may need to be excluded.

Unfortunately, this year, while it’s a yes for holidays and functions, it shouldn’t be holidays and functions as per usual. Allowances must be made for the poor timing of this fourth wave and this challenging variant.

  • Barry Schoub is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid Vaccines. This article is written in his private capacity. He reports no conflicts of interest.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. I M Beadle

    Jan 4, 2022 at 10:16 am

    THIS SENTENCE “What has been striking in this early phase of the fourth wave in Gauteng is the steep rise in the number of hospitalised adolescents and children” is worrying- why are they even in hospital?
    My twice vacced husband had a breakthrough infection, which was like a summer flu, and if we had not both been curious to find out if it was really Covid, we would not even had a test. All symptoms are such, that they can be treated with conventional remedies if you have a decent GP- why the rush to a hospital??
    There they will probably treat you with stuff that is killing you (at least that is what they do in the US with remdesivir) – there is NO need to get hospitalised with Omicron. And to say the vaccination is ‘probably’ 90 % effective- is like saying if you dont eat you will probably be hungry ??
    and what a statement- its proven and was told us all far too late- that the so-called vaccine is NOT helping-but destroying natural immunity – for giving you around 35-70% cover, and that is waning.
    I am sorry that Dr. Schoub is spouting the mainstream media nonsense- instead of allowing people to take care of themselves with a good doc. as they have done for centuries.

    I am sorry Dr. Sh

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Lifestyle

Locked Upside Down reopens theatre for business

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The Theatre on the Square finally reopens with Locked Upside Down, an almost wholly Jewish cast and crew bringing us a revue on living in the time of COVID-19 in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The SA Jewish Report speaks to Alan Swerdlow, the director of the show.

This is the first production in the revamped Theatre on the Square. What does that mean to you and your cast?

A theatre lives only when there’s an audience seated, watching, and engaging with a performance, and the act of performance is a reflection and recreation of experiences. For the general public, the past two years have been a time of deprivation from the communal shared experience of attending live shows, but I don’t think the public at large is aware just how devastating the impact of COVID-19 has been on the entertainment industry.

For two years, everyone connected with that industry has been effectively denied the chance of making a living – from stage hands, ushers, ticket sellers, to stage technicians, writers, composers, musicians, designers, performers, directors, and producers. Worldwide, the profession has been effectively gutted, with severe consequences for everyone connected with it.

For us to be the first production in the Theatre on the Square is unbelievably thrilling and inspirational as we help to bring a theatre back to life. Theatre is an act of community, and the pandemic paused or distorted all communal engagement, yet here we are, extending a hand to our community and actually looking into their eyes.

How would you describe this production?

It’s a revue, a reflection of the pandemic experience through songs, sketches, monologues, and dialogue, and like all revues, it’s funny, satirical, sometimes more heartfelt and emotional, and contemplative. It’s thematic rather than narrative, but at its heart, it’s story-telling, which is the oldest and most enduring performance – from grannies telling bedtime stories to the grandest, glitziest entertainment.

Who wrote the play and why? How was it put together?

The revue has been written by Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Lorri Strauss. Their frustration during the “time of COVID” led to a lot of introspection and an overwhelming desire to create something, even if its ultimate realisation on a stage in front of an audience was uncertain.

Once the entire production team had been assembled, creative input came from everyone, and as director, I helped shape the sketches and monologues.

This is one of the first COVID-19 lockdown productions in South Africa. Why do you think it’s important to write about this time?

Everyone is desperate to laugh at what they have been through these past two years. If we laugh in recognition of our demons, we reduce the impact and fear.

Theatre has always been a reflection of what it is to be human, and reflects the experiences of the watching audience even if it’s not immediately and obviously the individual, personal experience.

Empathy and understanding is a major part of shared experiences, and it’s often in a theatre where that empathy and understanding is to be found. At this time, we all need to let off some steam.

What issues do you touch on that we have dealt with as a community under lockdown?

There are issues large and small that everyone has dealt with, but it’s the small ones that are often forgotten first. So, particularly for parents, all the difficulties of juggling home life during lockdown come to the fore. With the home suddenly becoming office, school, nursing home, lecture hall, factory, and what-have-you, it was turned upside down and was anything but the nurturing refuge we like to think of home as being.

Zoom Calls, social distancing, online learning for kids, online shopping, lack of face-to-face contact, compulsive sanitising, expanding our cooking skills (when we couldn’t go to restaurants), being in a confined space and learning how to share it, and lots more – we’re hoping that the audience will recognise these themes and realise that they weren’t alone.

You have a predominantly Jewish cast. Does that mean there are Jewish-isms throughout? Give us some examples to look out for.

Because both Lorri and Sharon are “nice Jewish girls”, they wrote from their own experience, so the entire show is suffused with a Jewish neshomah that I think any Jewish audience will recognise.

There are all sorts of hints and passing references to things like the Jewish Mommies WhatsApp groups to the competitiveness of some parents in things like home-schooling and bread baking.

Tell us about your cast and what makes them bring the characters to life?

Both Sharon and Lorri have lived the experience of mommies with demanding children during lockdown and coped with it in their own way, and Cathrine brings her experience of a singleton living through lockdown. It’s real, immediately recognisable, and the audience can identify with it.

What will make this production memorable?

Being able to be part of one of the first shared experiences of a live performance in a theatre in Johannesburg is memorable enough, but there’s also some glorious singing and some sharp, witty observations about the way we live now. I think the relief that people will feel at “I wasn’t the only one reacting like that” will be palpable.

What type of audience will appreciate it, and what should they be prepared for?

Anyone who has been through the past two years will find that the show resonates with them and they should be prepared for some good laughs, some nostalgia, a few home truths, and the sheer joy of being back in a theatre watching people do what they do best.

As actors, directors, and entertainers, how have you all managed lockdown in South Africa?

I won’t lie – it has been really, really tough. But lockdown has given us one gift, the gift of time to reset, reflect, consider, and find new ways of harnessing our creative impulses. There has been a lot of writing, philosophising, acquisition of new skills, and the sorting out of priorities – in addition to the cleaning out of cupboards, learning to sort laundry properly, and keeping a sourdough starter alive.

What impact has it had on your personal lives?

As mentioned, we’ve had the chance to sort out our priorities and discover resilience out of necessity. Having one of the most important things in our lives taken away from us gave us a new appreciation for what it is that we love – our creative expression. For me personally, it was learning not to take anything for granted ever again.

  • “Locked Upside Down”, starring Sharon Spiegel-Wagner, Lorri Strauss, and Cathrine Hopkins will be at Theatre on the Square from 9 to 26 February. Tickets are available at computicket.com or contact 083 377 4969 or 011 883 8606.

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Lifestyle

Shirley Valentine gets the show on the road

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Shirley Valentine is coming to Montecasino Theatre from 26 January. The SA Jewish Report speaks to director Gina Shmukler about the show, long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us a little about your theatrical experience and the past two years?

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the theatre industry. I’m exceptionally fortunate that I direct corporate theatre, which has sustained me over the past two years. We have made theatre in the virtual space – basically TV for corporates.

What made you choose to direct Shirley Valentine now?

I was approached by VR Theatrical to direct. We were in rehearsals for Shirley Valentine when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. In February last year, we staged it for the first time at The Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg. At that point, theatres were allowed an audience of only 50 people. We played to 50 people in a 456-seater theatre. I remember crying when the first audience entered. Theatre has its own power of connection.

The set, props, and wardrobe were packed for Montecasino as we imagined we would be opening shortly afterwards. Another year passed … and here we are.

What is it about this play that appeals to you in general and as a woman?

Its humanity is what appeals to me. Shirley is alone in a marriage that has lost its love and connection. She’s honest about her aloneness as she talks to her “wall” and later her “rock”. Playwright Willy Russell captures the complexity of relationships, infusing the story with heart, humour, and love. Isolation has become real through the pandemic. We have all experienced the loss of community and connection, and what that means. Shirley’s journey takes her to the point where she falls in love with the idea of living. She discovers what it is to be alive.

Her journey is one about finding and learning to love the most important person in her life. Please explain this, and why it’s an important lesson for all of us?

Shirley has been holding onto a dream, “to sit at the edge of the sea and drink wine in a country where the grapes are grown”. It’s this dream which she believes will nourish her and lead her to happiness. And yet as she sits there, nothing changes. She realises we take ourselves with us, so while she lives that dream, her inner world doesn’t shift. She confronts what she calls her “wasted life”. It’s from this point that she begins to grow and fall in love with herself again.

For some, Shirley Valentine is a sad soul who is lost and so desperate, she talks to walls. For others, she’s a heroine. What is she to you, and why?

She’s a woman who fell in love with her husband, got married and had two kids, and had dreams that life and domesticity interfered with. And she got lost along the way. For me, she’s a woman of great courage and humour, who at the age of 42, redefines what matters to her and then lives by it.

What were you looking for in the actress to play Shirley? What does Natasha Sutherland bring to the role?

When I was auditioning for Shirley, I knew that technically, I needed someone who had real “theatre chops” as a one-person play requires great stamina and guts (to say the least). I hadn’t yet decided my vision for the play, but when Natasha auditioned, she brought something so real, so compelling, so contemporary, that I knew she was probably my Shirley. Theatre runs in Natasha’s veins, and it’s been a gift to work on a well-written play with an extraordinary actress and person.

Why bring a fantasy of a Greek island holiday to our theatres when we have been starved of travel for almost two years?

Doesn’t theatre give us the chance to dream, to be taken to unexpected places emotionally and imaginatively?

Last July, we filmed a virtual event in the Market Theatre and as I sat there, I was struck by what theatre offers me. A chance to get out of my head, to travel through music or the spoken word to unexpected places within myself, and a window to dream.

What do you believe our theatre audiences are looking for now?

Heart. Connection. Community. To laugh and share collectively.

So many theatre personae have been starved of work as a result of the pandemic. How do you believe this should be remedied?

Looking to government and our minister of arts and culture isn’t an option right now.

I have thought so many times who I would dedicate the run of Shirley to and to be honest, there has been so much death in our industry. Artists have suffered with limited work, no medical aid, they have no food, and have lost their homes. It’s very sore!

Nothing replaces the visceral power of the human story shared in a living, breathing environment such as the theatre. My wish would be more investment in the arts from corporates.

Shirley often says, “It’s funny that…” For me, it’s funny that businesses are eager to invest so much in their corporate social investment work when theatre has such a role to play in our society. When we can, let’s all exhale and rebuild our South African theatre industry, but for now, you can start by booking tickets to see Shirley Valentine, which runs from 26 January to 12 February in Joburg at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino.

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Question and Answer

Dison takes literary dip into Joburg’s underworld

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David Dison has brought out a second crime novel based in Johannesburg titled The Good Nigerian. The SA Jewish Report catches up with him to find out more.

What initially inspired you to write novels?

I was inspired by studying and reading great novels throughout my youth thanks to my late mother. From that time, I wanted to write.

This is your second novel. What drew you to writing about crime?

I had a lot of exposure to it through practicing law in Joburg which is the place described in my novels.

Are your characters based on anyone you or we might know and if so, who?

The characters are imaginary, but for those who know me, there are strong elements of similarity. Jerome Nossel is a fictional alter ego for me, and the imaginary characters in the book might have elements of people and places I have known in real life.

Jerome is decidedly Jewish and the book is dotted with fabulous Yiddish terms. Why?

Nossel is a Jew like one of the other characters in the book. This is a story that takes place in Johannesburg, which still has a vibrant Jewish community, so the book is reflective of that.

You bring Johannesburg to life in your stories. What’s your relationship with this city like? What does it mean to you?

I’m a fourth generation Johannesburger. My great grandfather is buried in Enoch Sontonga Park. This is the city in which we have lived for generations other than for a period in the early 20th century in Standerton, which I refer to in the book.

How would you describe the world of The Good Nigerian?

An allegory set in Joburg shortly before the pandemic.

You have a deep understanding of media, entertainment, civil and human rights, and law, but your fiction isn’t about that. Why?

This is precisely why I like contemporary fiction writing. It’s about an imaginary world with roots and resonances in our own world which the reader can relate to. My daily professional life wouldn’t hook readers.

Describe where and how you like to write?

Early mornings are best for me. Possibly two to three hours, depending on whether I’m writing actively.

It has been many years since your first Nossel book. Why the hiatus?

I produced essays and short stories. One of them, Louis Botha Avenue, had characters which I developed.

How did you feel when you completed this book?

Fulfilled. I’m very happy with this book and what my publishers Jacana Media have done with it.

How did your family contribute to making it work?

My wife is a teacher and writer, so she understands.

Can we expect another Nossel book soon or are you planning something quite different?

There’s a third in the Nossel triptych on its way next year.

Is there anything you would like potential SA Jewish Report readers to know?

This book looks closely at Jews who have emigrated in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century to Africa through the medium of a detective story. It’s racy and provocative. Buy it, please.

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