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Coronavirus vaccines have arrived – will this rescue us?

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OP-EDS

After a great deal of public clamour, media noise, and anxious expectations, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines have finally arrived. What can we expect?

Undoubtedly, we have in vaccines one of the most powerful weapons to combat disease. It has been said that, other than the provision of clean water, vaccines have done more for public health than any other intervention.

One only needs to look at the eradication of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, and the drastic reduction of many infectious diseases – which almost all of our young doctors of today have never seen, such as polio and diphtheria and even measles – to marvel at the power of vaccines.

Unfortunately, but realistically, we cannot have the same expectation for COVID-19 vaccines. Viruses like measles and polio behave themselves and maintain their respective vaccine targets. Not so the COVID-19 coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Here, we have a far wilier opponent.

Truth be told, we didn’t expect this virus to be as changeable as it is. (The genome, the total genetic structure of this virus, is a long piece of RNA, unlike the fragments of the influenza virus, and also unlike the mutable reverse transcription mechanism of the HIV virus.)

It did indeed surprise us, for it didn’t take long for its many mutations to appear. Surprise turned to anxiety when it became apparent that some of these mutations were positioned in critical parts of its structure, that very part of the virus which is targeted by the immune defensive response following infection or vaccination.

Fortunately, our immune system and our immune responses to infection are more complex than merely making antibodies, and vaccines may still work in spite of worrying signals coming from the laboratory. However, what it does tell us is that we cannot presume that what you find with many other vaccines will similarly apply to controlling COVID-19.

Nevertheless, there are two factors in our favour in dealing with the challenges of this virus. First, there is our science of vaccinology. The development of vaccines and understanding of how they work is now advanced and sophisticated. So much so that the necessary adjustments to the vaccine needed to meet the changing of the virus’ targets can be done quite effortlessly and relatively quickly.

Second, and fortunately for us, as contagious as the virus is especially in certain superspreading settings, its infectivity is considerably less than (say) measles, and the herd immunity threshold is correspondingly lower.

So, what does all this mean with regard to planning how vaccines will be used to control the epidemic? The rollout will basically be structured into two parts. The aim of the first part, consisting of two phases, is to protect those most at risk of being infected. The highest priority of these will be healthcare workers, who will be the first phase. The most vulnerable of society will be in phase two – the elderly, those with underlying illnesses (comorbidities), key personnel for the running of the country, and people living in crowded or congregate environments.

Attention can then be turned to part two, to reach as many of the rest of the adult population in order to achieve herd immunity. Children aren’t currently approved to receive the vaccine.

What do we hope the vaccine will achieve? We cannot expect it to do what the polio vaccine did for polio or the measles vaccine for measles. What we do want to see, however, is a future which avoids the healthcare system, hospitals, and healthcare workers, from being swamped, as we experienced during the first and second waves.

We will want to return to our pre-COVID-19 lives, without the restrictions, without the masks, and having functions and celebrations as before.

This will certainly not happen as soon as the vaccination kicks off. It didn’t happen in the United Kingdom, the first country to commence population immunisation. In fact, two months after commencing its rollout, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a second wave considerably more severe than the first wave, and necessitating the strictest of lockdowns.

Until herd immunity is reached, we will still need to continue strict adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions while the vaccines do their work. That target will take many months and beyond the year to reach.

The COVID-19 pandemic will go away and vaccines will certainly play a major role together with human behaviour. The virus won’t disappear. The only virus that has ever been eradicated is smallpox.

What we are hoping for in the post-COVID-19 era is a virus which will no longer be totally new to the human population. In history, it has been those viruses introduced into totally naïve and therefore totally susceptible populations, causing so-called virgin-soil epidemics, which have devastated populations. (Measles and smallpox introduced by European invaders in the 16th century to the native populations of the Americas resulted in catastrophic epidemics, wiping out major portions of indigenous populations.) When COVID-19 is no longer new and the virus no longer meets a totally susceptible human population, immunity from vaccines and past infections will produce barriers to stop the spread of the virus.

In the future, there may well be spikes of COVID-19 respiratory infections, hopefully much more trivial, which we will come to tolerate. This will be much like we do for their coronavirus cousins, which are responsible for our annual winter colds, along with many other viruses.

Perhaps some lessons of hygiene practices may continue to be part of our everyday lives. We may well even adopt some of the cultural practices so common in the Far East, like wearing masks in public places when we have a cold, or hand-hygiene practices.

We will come out of this miserable pandemic, but the more conscientious we are about maintaining our non-pharmaceutical interventions to assist the work of vaccines, the sooner that day will come.

  • Professor Barry Schoub is the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. He is emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

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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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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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