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Experts cautiously optimistic about Omicron

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A 73-year-old Jewish woman with dementia in Johannesburg tested positive for COVID-19 this week, but after 48 hours of being a bit sleepy, she was back to her usual self.

Though she’s one of many people of all ages contracting the highly transmissible Omicron variant, this new mutation may lead to less hospitalisation and death and fewer disruptions to daily life than previous variants, experts say.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on Tuesday, 7 December 2021, Netcare Group Chief Executive Dr Richard Friedland said, “What we are seeing across the Gauteng province, which is the epicentre of this new variant, is that the vast majority of patients are presenting mild to moderate flu-like symptoms. We have been treating these patients symptomatically through our Medicross primary care clinics and emergency departments. We have 270 COVID-19-positive cases across our 53 hospitals in South Africa. Seventy-five percent of cases are in Gauteng. About 20% of the cases are in KwaZulu-Natal. We have less than 10% of patients on any form of oxygenation, which is in stark contrast to the other waves when the vast majority of COVID-19 cases were on some form of oxygenation and ventilation. As we speak, we have only six cases being ventilated.”

Friedland thinks this variant is “highly transmissible, but at the moment there’s no evidence of severe illness requiring hospitalisation and leading to death. It’s very early to speculate, but this is the pattern we’re seeing throughout the country. I want to re-emphasise that given that it’s highly transmissible, we still need to continue vaccinating, and most importantly, ensure that everyone is wearing a mask. This is an airborne virus, and mask wearing is incredibly effective.”

“The virus seems to be spreading faster than ever before,” says Dr Darren Joseph, specialist physician at the department of internal medicine at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, on 6 December. “We have seen a high number of re-infections. The feeling on the ground, though, at this stage, is one of cautious optimism. Though we are seeing ever-rising numbers of suspected cases and confirmed positivity, this hasn’t yet translated into a dramatic increase in hospitalisation.”

He points to a recent report authored by Dr Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council, “which outlines our hospital complex’s experience very well. At the Steve Biko Academic and Tshwane District Hospitals complex, we saw 166 new admissions with confirmed COVID-19 between 14 and 29 November 2021. Of those still admitted, the vast majority remain out of our critical-care units and roughly two-thirds of our admissions aren’t oxygen requiring. This is in stark contrast to what was experienced at this point in previous waves. Fortunately, vaccination still offers protection, with the report showing that all the current admissions with pure COVID-19 pneumonia were unvaccinated individuals.

“We have also seen a much younger demographic so far in this wave, including a high number of paediatric infections and admissions,” Joseph says.

Though there is cause to be optimistic, “my real concern is that if the narrative around this current wave is that the virus has somehow become less virulent and that this signals the end of COVID-19, we will be sending out the wrong message. The vulnerable remain vulnerable, and if we throw caution to the wind, we still run the risk of having sick patients rapidly overwhelm our limited resources.”

Hatzolah Operations Manager Uriel Rosen says, “Our numbers are rising by 100 a day. We are currently at 1 071 active cases, with 454 new cases this week.” At the same time, “only 1.6% of our cases are on oxygen or need more intense treatment or hospitalisation. This is compared to 10.4% in the last wave. However, we are learning about this variant, and it’s difficult to say categorically that it’s weaker. It doesn’t mean because the numbers of critical are low, there’s no issue.

“Every event where all the protocols aren’t fully observed is a super-spreader,” says Rosen. “It’s spreading like crazy. We need to take precautions.”

Rosen says a lot more children are getting COVID-19. “The highest age group of active cases right now is from 11 to 20. It could be related to children not getting vaccinated or teens having only one vaccination, or it could be how this variant works. No person under 20 on our wellness programme has been hospitalised.”

Regarding holidays, “Go on holiday, but be safe. If anyone from the Johannesburg Jewish community contracts COVID-19 on holiday – even overseas – contact Hatzolah, and we will look after them. We have 115 wellness volunteers and eight staff members that are 1 000% dedicated. They do it with passion and care, with at least 150 to 200 calls a day. We also have eight nurses for intensive cases. There are about 139 nurse rounds per day. We are the luckiest community in the world. At Hatzolah, we are doing it for our brothers, sisters, and family. No Yid gets left behind.”

CSO (Community Security Organisation) Cape Town has witnessed a dramatic rise in cases, from two on 27 November to 127 on 7 December. “They mostly have moderate symptoms, with no one yet requiring hospitalisation,” says director Loren Raize. “This is a drastic change from last year this time, when we had 12 patients already hospitalised out of a total of 47. Close to 90% of our current patients are fully vaccinated, and 5% are partially vaccinated.

“Current patient demographics show that the majority are between the ages of 21 to 30 (30%) followed by 51 to 60 (18%),” she says. “We are expecting an influx of holidaymakers which we have prepared for. We hope that people won’t avoid testing to avoid holiday plans being changed or cancelled.” At the same time, “rushing out to get a test as soon as you are informed of a positive contact is counterproductive and can result in a false negative. This only compounds the problem. Anyone who has had high-risk exposure should isolate for the full period and test only if they develop symptoms.”

Still, the community is being cautious. In Cape Town, the Highlands House Home for the Jewish Aged was locked down to visitors on 26 November. Within the home, it’s business as usual. In Johannesburg, Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson says, “We have had some new cases in our residential facilities. We caught most early. Many originated from people who were at public hospitals. I think the big differentiator is that virtually all of our staff and residents are vaccinated. We’re seeing very mild COVID-19. We’re still allowing vaccinated visitors to come in. We’ve implemented measures to curb the spread inside facilities. We’re also doing our best to fast-track boosters for our residents.”

Also in Cape Town, general practitioner Dr Orit Laskov who practices in the heart of the Jewish hub of Sea Point says, “We’re seeing many positive cases again, including kids. Cases I have seen so far have been mild. It’s disheartening still to need to convince patients to get vaccinated.”

In Johannesburg, general practitioner Dr Sheri Fanaroff says, “People who are fully vaccinated and have had COVID-19 before are still getting Omicron. We are also seeing shorter incubation times and a lot of asymptomatic cases. Another trend is that people who are positive with classic symptoms are testing negative initially, both on PCR and in antigen tests. They must still isolate.

“The majority – if not all – the cases I have seen have been very mild,” she says. “I have a number of COVID-19 patients over 70 or even 80 years old who are fully vaccinated. We are monitoring them, but so far, none have required hospitalisation or even home oxygen. Most of the blood parameters and oxygen levels remain good. But what we saw with Delta was deterioration from day eight, so I’m hesitant to say that it’s definitely milder. We must remain cautious.”

So, where to from here? International expert in emergency medicine, Dr Efraim Kramer, says, “Before vaccination, the main strategy was ‘virus evasion’ by social separation, face masks, hand sanitation, limited mass gatherings, and lockdowns. But in the current era, things are different. Especially in the Jewish community, the rate of vaccination is exceptionally high and many people are post-COVID-19 infection.

“Then came Omicron, and its supersonic transmissibility yet low virulence and illness severity. The huge question with this new threat is how to manage it: COVID-19 evasion versus COVID-19 cohabitation. That is, do we evade the virus, or do we learn to live with it – a new strategy, based on ‘get vaccinated, get infected, get on with your life’, preferably in that order. This becomes a reality when there is a highly transmissible virus but its mild infective illness results in low hospital admission rates and complications, especially amongst the vaccinated vulnerable.”

Kramer says this means factoring COVID-19 into everything one does. “For example, at any wedding, adults exercise their personal autonomy by attending the event, fully conversant of the COVID-19 infective risk. Whichever strategy one chooses – evasion or cohabitation – it’s a personal choice and both are correct.”

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“We could do much more together,” Israeli ambassador tells Ramaphosa

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Israel’s new ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, rubbed elbows with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented his credentials to him on Tuesday, 25 January, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Tshwane.

Ramaphosa was courteous and smiling as Belotsercovsky told him about how the relationship between their countries could improve and how Israel could help South Africa.

“We believe there’s tremendous potential in us working together,” the Israeli ambassador told Ramaphosa. “Together, we can share dreams and together, we can fulfil them.”

Belotsercovsky said that South Africa was a shining example of a peaceful and dignified transition under the enlightened and courageous leadership of Nelson Mandela. He said the country’s democratic transformation took place with an independent judicial system and a free press.

But most importantly, he said, it was achieved through dialogue and “Israel is looking forward to upgrading our bilateral dialogue. There’s so much we can do together in the future in science and technology, education and training, food security, and climate change.”

He used the example of South African and Israeli scientists working together to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as an example of successful co-operation.

Israel’s government is based on “a rainbow coalition” Belotsercovsky said, which represents an excellent example of partnership between religious and secular Jews and Arabs, people of European and African origins, politicians and technocrats, all united in the task of fulfilling the dreams of the next generation.

He went on to tell the president about the phenomenal ways Israel is already using its technology and knowhow to work successfully in South Africa, and said he hoped there was much more they could do together.

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Legal amendment puts Lithuanian citizenship in reach

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Thousands of Litvak Jews around the world stand a much better chance at getting Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry since the law was amended last week.

A bill to amend Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship was unanimously passed in Lithuania’s Seimas (parliament) last Thursday, 20 January. It will have far-reaching positive implications for future applicants, many of whom had unsuccessfully tried and lost hope of obtaining citizenship.

This follows a year of extensive lobbying efforts from many quarters. It involved various iterations of a draft bill which was revised and redrafted several times, according to those involved, leading to last week’s vote, in which 110 members of parliament from across Lithuania’s political spectrum supported the bill.

Lithuanian Ambassador to South Africa Dainius Junevičius said the bill clarified that anyone who was a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania before 15 June 1940 was eligible for reinstatement of their citizenship on condition that there were no decisions adopted on their loss of citizenship.

This is a huge relief to many whose applications were rejected by the Lithuanian migration department, some pending indefinitely with others being placed on hold.

The application jam stemmed from a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision a few years ago which opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher, and which dramatically slowed down applications, causing enormous frustration.

In addition to what was always accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants were also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940.

This was a dramatic departure from the original position, which never required proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This was a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It also had far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutienė from Next Steps. Her company assists South Africans and others to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report many of her clients’ applications had been declined by the migration department because of this.

In some cases where families had applied at different times using the same source documents, some had been granted citizenship, while others had been rejected.

However, this will soon change, said an elated Degutienė, who believes last week’s vote will pave the way forward for many South African Jews to successfully apply for citizenship.

“Less than a year ago, I was telling a story of a ridiculous court ruling which was applied to an unlucky Litvak family whose application for Lithuanian citizenship was rejected. Now I’m so happy to announce that the law has been amended, and this particular family, as many more, will be free to receive their passports.”

Degutienė and many others including politicians and lawyers in Lithuania and members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies campaigned tirelessly for the amendment.

“I was really frustrated about the grey zone in the citizenship legislation which was used by Lithuanian institutions to create rules and obstacles that made many South African Litvaks ineligible for a Lithuanian passport,” said Degutienė. “The only way to solve this impossible situation was to change the law as any other solution would have been too temporary, and we would have had to depend on court procedures which are lengthy and costly.”

She said it had been a tough road.

“Not many colleagues or competitors believed I would succeed, but now as you see, if you put all your heart and effort into something, sooner or later it results in positive developments.”

Said Junevičius, “As we welcome this move by the Republic of Lithuania, removing many barriers to apply for the reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship, we anticipate deepening connection with ancestral land and fully expect an exponential growth in economic relations and tourism.”

The director of AccessEU, Nicole Marcus, said this week, “AccessEU looks forward to overturning the negative decisions and restoring our 100% success record. Over the years, we’ve experienced changes to the requirements and process, at times becoming very difficult if not near impossible, and at other times easing somewhat. We urge everyone who is eligible to use this opportunity to apply for Lithuanian citizenship before any new interpretations might close the doors once again.”

Before the bill becomes law, Lithuania’s president will need to sign the bill into effect, and this is expected to happen soon.

Once enacted into law, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement that one’s Lithuanian ancestor must have actively maintained their Lithuanian citizenship until 14 June 1940. That requirement was strictly enforced by the migration department since December 2020 following the Supreme Court decision in November 2020, when an application for citizenship with no supporting Lithuanian documentation was brought, causing serious ramifications for many other applicants.

Many applicants were refused citizenship on the basis that their Lithuanian ancestor had naturalised prior to 15 June 1940. Now the prospects of success for those applicants have been revived.

According to insiders, many hundreds of applications are believed to have been waiting for years for a decision following various procedural and then interpretative changes. Hundreds of applications which are currently held in suspense pending queries from Lithuania’s migration department which had been almost impossible to satisfy will now need to be reconsidered.

The migration department will probably take some time to work through the backlog, and applicants shouldn’t expect immediate results. They should keep in mind that the change in the law doesn’t mean that every applicant will be successful as each application will depend on its own supporting documentation which varies from one family to the next, insiders say.

Applicants are still required to prove that their Lithuanian ancestor left Lithuania after 16 February 1918 (the Republic of Lithuania’s initial date of independence) and must still prove with Lithuanian documentation that they held Lithuanian citizenship and departed from Lithuania.

One of the questions still being asked is whether those whose ancestors arrived in South Africa prior to 1918 will be able to apply for a passport.

“The answer is no,” said Degutienė. “This law does not extend the right of applying to those who emigrated earlier than the State of Lithuania was established, and it’s unlikely this will ever change.”

Degutienė said the amendment wouldn’t have been made possible without the help of Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dalia Asanavičiūtė. “Without her persistence and resilience against huge pressure from the migration department and opposition, and her deep understanding and respect for Jews, this change would never have been possible.”

Junevičius said the amendment was a very positive development, and would probably ensure the success of many pending and future applications.

He encouraged prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania, saying that amongst other things, the country offered a broad range of international study programmes taught in English in its 19 universities and 22 colleges at a highly competitive price.

Nearly 8 000 students from 127 countries in the world including South Africa and Israel studied in Lithuania in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Junevičius said. “The reasons to choose Lithuania as your study destination are multiple, but the main ones are high quality world-class education for an affordable price in an attractive European country.”

As for business opportunities, Junevičius said that for the past 20 years, Lithuania had been the fastest growing economy in the European Union in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a “highly favourable business environment” with top rankings and ratings.

“Things here get done quicker and better because the doers – from students and engineers to the go-to advisors at Invest Lithuania – are agile, ambitious, and driven by big ideas. And when it comes to big ideas, we don’t dabble, we explore, from gene and cell therapy to the latest in machine learning.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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