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High death rate reflects an ageing community

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The South African Jewish community has had an unprecedented number of COVID-19-related deaths, with a fatality rate higher than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. However, while it appears to be 11 times higher than the reported COVID-19 fatality rate in South Africa, it’s due to the aged nature of our community.

In fact, the average age of those in our community who died was 82.7. The youngest COVID-19 fatality was 47, and the oldest 101. Thirty-nine percent were female, and 61% male. Seventy-one percent of all COVID deaths in Johannesburg so far occurred in July.

“To date, about 106 Jews are understood to have died from COVID-19, which would extrapolate to a figure of 2 038 per million [using the published estimate of 52 000 Jews in South Africa from the Kaplan Centre Jewish Community Survey of South Africa 2019],” says Professor Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and former founder and director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). “This figure is greatly in excess of the 179 deaths per million for South Africa, 502 per million for the US, and 685 per million for the UK.”

Jews, therefore, make up 1% of COVID-19 fatalities in South Africa, even though they are 0.09% of the population. If aligned to reported national statistics, the Jewish community should have only nine deaths.

However, the high death rate could have been much worse if it weren’t for the organisations, medical professionals, and community members working together to save lives.

Dr Daniel Israel, a general practitioner in Johannesburg, says, “There has definitely been a symbiosis between these three elements, with patients being aware of asking for medical attention, as well as many community members being socially responsible, organisations like Hatzolah treating and assisting patients, and doctors engaging intensively with both. We have done well because of our structures, and because of identifying deterioration quicker. There is no doubt that if our small community didn’t have these elements, the numbers would have been much higher.”

Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director of the NICD, agrees. “The Chevrah Kadisha has been amazing in preparing its care homes for COVID-19, and when they had outbreaks, it responded quickly to contain them. We also saw this in Cape Town and Pretoria. Hatzolah must be commended for its active and aggressive home-support programme, monitoring deterioration, and quick provision of oxygen. General practitioners have played a key role, and the community has come together, making sacrifices like closing shuls and supporting each other.”

According to Chevrah Kadisha officials around the country, Jewish COVID-19 fatalities include 68 in Johannesburg, 27 in Cape Town, four in Durban, and seven in Pretoria. Records are meticulously kept because of the Chevrah Kadisha protocols implemented if the deceased is COVID-19 positive.

“The higher death rate is almost certainly a reflection of the age distribution in the Jewish population of South Africa. The median age for the general South African population is 26.4 years, against 45 years for the Jewish population in the country,” says Schoub. “In addition, only 6% of the South African population is over 65 years of age, while 34% of Johannesburg Jews, 46% of Cape Town Jews, and 58% of Durban Jews are over 60 years, according to the Kaplan Centre survey. Studies have universally demonstrated older age to be one of the risk factors for a severe outcome in COVID-19 disease.”

“One cannot compare the death rate in the Jewish community to the death rate in South Africa,” says Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson. “In general, as a result of health, education, medical aid, lifestyle, and communal organisations, I would expect that the Jewish community has a life expectancy in the mid-80s, and broader South Africa is about 63. We also have a higher proportion of elderly people in our community due to emigration.”

He says the Chevrah Kadisha and actuaries are running an excess mortality study, “and over time, we hope to gain a better understanding of the data and how our community has been affected”.

Jeffrey Dorfman, associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University, says, “This [high fatality rate] seems surprising considering that we have spent a lot of time in lockdown, and even when that was relaxed, many of the activities that facilitated spread were curtailed, particularly communal davening.

“However, once COVID-19 was with us, the higher rates may have been hard to stop. It does seem that to keep our death rates as low as the general population, we, as a whole, would have needed to be more careful, particularly in Johannesburg. It’s concerning that these deaths have come up so strongly relatively early in Gauteng’s first wave. These revelations should also result in great caution when considering re-opening communal activities, particularly in Gauteng.”

Almost all Jewish communities report disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates, although South African Jewry’s rate is higher than some of these. For example, Britain’s Jewish community of 264 000 people, which comprises about 0.5% of its population, has lost about 458 Jews. This is two and a half times the COVID-19 death rate of the British population, which has the third highest COVID-19 death rate in the world. But it’s still lower than South African Jewry’s fatality rate, equivalent to 90 Jews having died of COVID-19 in South Africa. France’s 500 000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Europe, has experienced a similar ratio of COVID-19 deaths to South Africa, with about 1 300 deaths.

The first death in Cape Town was on 28 March, and in Johannesburg on 28 April. “In July alone,” Tomson says, “we conducted 110 burials, of which 44% were COVID-positive. This is more than double a regular July, and is an increase of 129% compared to the average over the past five years, which is 48 deaths. It is, in fact, the highest number of deaths since our digital record-keeping began in January 1994.

“In spite of a massive increase in deaths in Johannesburg in July, the staff and volunteers of the Chevrah Kadisha’s burial services maintained the highest levels of compassionate service,” he says. “At times, we had three teams working through the night ensuring the rapid collection of the meis [deceased] from homes and hospitals. Our mitaskim [the staff who collect the bodies] wore personal protective equipment for every collection to ensure their safety.

“Burials were conducted without delay [as per Jewish law], in spite of the immense pressure this put on our staff. They worked around the clock, sometimes having eight funerals a day. At this time, we recognise the tragedy of many family members not being able to attend funerals. This required heightened sensitivity and looking at alternative ways that the families could be included, such as Zoom calls.”

Gary Cohen, a volunteer at the Johannesburg Jewish cemetery, is a gabbai, ensuring a funeral is conducted according to halacha. He says they high number of funerals “really brings home the reality of how deadly this virus is, and how older people have borne the brunt”. Most funerals are tiny, with only close family members present, and often there will be volunteers to make up a minyan. He has only seen two or three funerals fill the full 50-person quotient currently allowed.

He emphasises that everyone from labourers to rabbis have worked to make the experience easier for the families. “The staff at the cemetery has had to literally double their workload, and this period must have taken a massive mental toll. However tired and depleted they are, they still show exceptional compassion towards the bereaved families, who may not have had contact with the deceased for several weeks,” Cohen says.

Tomson says that in the months prior to July, there were actually fewer deaths than usual. For example, in May, deaths were 24% lower than the previous five-year average for May. “The result is that although deaths in July were very high, overall deaths from January through July were up by 20% compared to last year, and 25% when compared to the previous five-year average.”

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says, “The COVID-19 death rate in our community is of great concern. We are acutely aware that each fatality is a tragedy for the family, and our hearts go out to all who have been affected. We need to stress the importance of protecting those most vulnerable in our community. While we see a glimmer of hope in the reduction in infections, and our schools and shuls beginning to open, we urge every community member to continue to stay vigilant.”

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Couple caught in crossfire of attempted mall robbery

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A young couple attempted to flee the scene of a botched armed robbery at Melrose Arch on Easter Monday, only to get caught in a hail of bullets.

Today, Brandon Regenbaum, 27, lies in hospital in a serious but stable condition under heavy sedation following a five-hour long operation to reconstruct his jaw and repair his mouth. He was shot in the face after robbers hastily fled the upmarket lifestyle mall where they had tried unsuccessfully to rob Elegance Jewellers.

His girlfriend of three years, Lorian Blechman, 25, witnessed the whole scene and luckily escaped unharmed.

The couple, who were due to leave for a holiday in Umhlanga Rocks that day, met for breakfast at Tashas. They left the mall in separate vehicles and found themselves unwittingly in the middle of a gun battle between fleeing suspects and the mall’s security guards.

“The robbers were running towards the Virgin Active Gym. We quickly took a different exit to avoid them, it was scary,” said Blechman.

They beckoned to each other to take an alternative exit near the Daytona shop in a bid to dodge the fleeing suspects. To their horror, they were then confronted by the robbers – who had made it to their escape vehicles – further down the road on Athol/Oaklands Drive in the direction of the N1 highway.

The couple could see the suspects’ vehicles in their review mirrors, so they instinctively swerved out of the way to allow them to speed past. There were loud gunshots, after which Blechman noticed Regenbaum wasn’t driving. She frantically called him to ask why.

He told her, “Babe I love you, but I’ve been shot and I’m going to die.”

Traumatised and still in shock, Blechman told the SA Jewish Report that she jumped out of her car and ran to him.

Speaking from hospital, she said, “There was blood and glass everywhere, and he was in a lot of pain. He told me he was dying. I remember pulling up his hand brake,” she said.

A young Jewish couple walking their baby immediately called Hatzolah, which arrived a few minutes later. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, another witness helped Blechman to make several calls to family. She told Blechman to keep talking to Regenbaum.

“I told Brandon that help was on the way. I told him his mother and brother were coming. I asked him where I could find his Discovery medical card. I told him general things like he was going to be okay, to stay with me, to stay awake. I told him to count how long it would take me in seconds to run to my car 10m away to get my keys,” she said.

Blechman called her father, who was already in Harrismith en route to Umhlanga Rocks where they were supposed to meet later.

Regenbaum’s father, Clifford, was in Plettenberg Bay on holiday when he received the call telling him his son had been shot.

“I was shocked,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

He believes his son was shot by the robbers who may have mistaken him for a security guard in hot pursuit.

“He drives a bakkie with our company name on the side which looks like a security vehicle and even has hazard lights. The robbers had already seen him leaving Melrose Arch, and I think believed him to be a security guard. I honestly believe they tried to kill him,” he said.

“It has been a stressful, worrying time. He will recover, but it will take time. I’m angry at this senseless shooting of innocent people. My son could have died. These robbers have no respect for human life. I don’t know what there is to learn from this.”

Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubele told the SA Jewish Report, “Police are investigating a case of attempted business robbery and attempted murder which occurred at Melrose Arch.

“It is alleged that an unknown number of suspects driving in two cars, an Audi Q7 and a Ford Ranger, were in a shootout with security guards after they were intercepted before the business robbery,” Makhubele said. “A man who was driving his car [Regenbaum] was shot and injured during the incident. Nothing was taken from the shop.”

While doctors have told the family the operation was successful, Regenbaum will have his jaw wired for seven weeks, and won’t be able to talk or eat solid food.

“It will be a long road to recovery,” said Blechman.

“It’s a miracle Brandon survived. It’s also freaky that we were in separate cars. If I had been with him on the passenger side of the car, I might not be here today. I was running late. Brandon needed to fetch his siddur and tefillin to assist my father with a minyan on holiday, as he is saying kaddish for my zaida who passed away last year. I believe my zaida was watching over us,” she said.

Police ask that anyone with information contact 0860 010 111.

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Israeli company turns SA water from toxic to drinkable

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An Israeli company is assisting local government authorities to transform toxic water to healthy drinking water in what could be a game-changer for South Africa as a water-scarce country.

The company, BlueGreen Water Technologies, is a world leader in eradicating toxic algae from water sources, and has offered its expertise to South Africa.

With a branch in South Africa, the company started working at Setumo Dam on the Molopo River in North West province earlier this month. The project is in collaboration with Sedibeng Water, the company overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Germany where he is currently based, BlueGreen Water Technologies Chief Executive Eyal Harel said, “Toxic algae blooms are like a ‘global pandemic’ of bacteria. They infest bodies of water, and when that population of bacteria explodes, it makes the water toxic. You can’t use that water for drinking or recreation, it depreciates property, it makes that body of water too hostile for other life forms, and it creates health and economic problems.”

The company believes in the value of all people having access to quality drinking water, Harel said, and it’s doing the work in South Africa on humanitarian grounds. “At the Setumo Dam, it’s more like lots of bacteria with a bit of water in between. But half a million people rely on it for drinking water. We came to help get good quality drinking water to these communities.” Local government departments and officials had been “extremely helpful … everyone is working together”, Harel said. “Even in this time of pandemic and reduced budgets, they are doing an excellent job.”

He said the condition of the dam meant it was impossible to treat it from the ground, so they have had to deploy helicopters to distribute product from the air. “This is the first operation of its kind in the world. It’s new for us too, and requires lots of co-ordination with government officials, water boards, and locals.”

The company describes its products as “floating, slow-release formulations of market-approved algaecides designed to prevent the intensification of cyanobacterial toxic blooms in freshwater bodies [also known as ‘blue green algae’]”.

Harel said he was motivated to work with water as “water touches all people, no matter their differences.” With 22 March being ‘World Water Day’, he emphasises that “two billion people around the world only have access to poor quality water. About 99.9% is left untreated, and people think there is nothing they can do. We want to educate decision-makers that this isn’t the case anymore. Lakes can be treated, even much bigger lakes than Setumo Dam. In addition, algae blooms can actually be prevented.”

Harel got married in Cape Town, and was there during the height of the drought in 2018.

“I remember the term ‘Day Zero’, and how frightening it was,” he said, pointing out that drought also contributes to algae blooms because with less water, “pollution concentrates and bacteria grows. It becomes even more toxic, less liquid, and makes the existing problem much worse. That could be the reason Setumo Dam was in such appalling condition.”

The company also assisted Roodepoort Dam, reducing toxic levels of algae in the water two weeks before a rowing competition in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. However, Harel said Setumo Dam was in much worse shape. “It’s first and foremost a drinking water source,” he said. “It’s in a rural area that borders Botswana, and the communities are about as poor as it gets. So it’s our small way of helping.”

He emphasises that the company is “completely non-political” and is simply trying to reach out to areas where it knows there is an acute problem. It has even reached out to other Middle Eastern countries that aren’t friendly to Israel. “We aren’t here to make a political stand but a humanitarian one, and any human-rights organisation should understand that.

“Part of our agenda is to empower local communities to take responsibility for their local water source. We come as guests,” he says. “In all likelihood, if the dam isn’t maintained, it will go back to the way it was. So, our ultimate goal is to train local communities to be able to assess water conditions. They will be the ‘boots on the ground’ and raise the flag that there is a problem. We work with real-time remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery to assess conditions in the lake, so they will be part of that process.

“We have established good relationships with the government. It sees the problem for what it is, and is taking a long-term approach. We are totally committed to improving water quality in South Africa, and we see the same from government.”

The company’s director of operations in South Africa, Jurgens van Loggerenberg, told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked in water-treatment processes throughout South Africa for the past 20 years.

“Over the past two decades, I’ve seen a decline in the management of infrastructure and water quality. It’s a big problem as it affects people’s lives. So, when I saw BlueGreen’s technology and what it could mean for the improvement of water quality, I was fascinated.” He joined the company soon afterwards.

He believes the technology could “be a game-changer for South Africa. Toxic bacteria means that humans suffer. And it’s never been looked at this way before. Water has been treated only at the treatment facility. I don’t think the team has ever treated water of this poor quality before, but it has a strong strategy. We have the support of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and the Department of Water and Sanitation. They are standing behind it. They believe in the technology and what it can do for the environment. They know it can help them achieve their goals.

“One thing we observed is that there are so many shops in the area that sell bottled water,” he said. “The day the community can open the tap and have safe drinking water will be a big day for the country.”

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Wits protest an education in activism

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“When I look back to my youth in years to come, I don’t want to have to tell my children I was one of the people who kept to the side and stayed silent. I want to tell them that as a white, Jewish woman in a democratic South Africa, I led.”

So says Gabi Farber, a student activist who, together with other Jewish youth, has committed herself to the fight against financial and academic exclusion at South African universities.

They join a growing movement of university students who in recent weeks embarked on a nationwide protest over tuition fees with demands including the allocation of funding for excluded students and a zero fee increase for the 2021 academic year.

Farber, the legal and policy officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), has been integrally involved in the protest.

“We have been on the ground every day,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “Walking through the streets of Braamfontein creating mass awareness about the students’ financial-exclusion crisis.”

Following the shutdown of various campuses, violence has escalated in the past few days, with police responding to demonstrations with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, and arresting protesting students in Braamfontein. A bystander, Mthokozisi Nthumba, was tragically shot and killed by police last week.

Says Farber, “The first few days were scary. The police were out of control, and you could see they didn’t know what they were doing, shooting rubber bullets directly at people without giving time to disperse. A grenade landed on my foot and burst my eardrums. It was dangerous.

“The media suggests there are hundreds of us and that the protestors are violent. In reality, it’s very calm on the ground, and there aren’t too many of us.”

The police have calmed down in recent days, Farber says, and those responsible for Nthumba’s death were due to attend a hearing on Wednesday, 17 March.

“I couldn’t let [the police brutality] turn me away though,” she says. “There are risks when you’re fighting for change. What’s scarier to me would be doing nothing at a time like this.”

Natanya Porter and Benjamin Atie have also been actively involved.

“On Monday, there were about 50 protestors, and we were chanting and singing peacefully in the street,” recounts Porter, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) officer at Wits’ education campus. “Suddenly, the police arrived in hippos [armed vehicles] and water-cannon trucks as if there were thousands of us burning down Braamfontein. They used a disproportionate amount of force.”

Beyond active involvement in the protest, Porter and Atie have also been involved in assisting students arrested by police, providing them with snacks and support while they awaited trial last week.

“There was no reason for their arrest,” Porter says. “We believe that the police just grabbed whoever was in a protest t-shirt and who was slowest at running away. In the end, the magistrate dismissed the case.

“As an education student, I believe that it’s a right not a privilege. I don’t think it’s fair for education to be available only to the few who can afford it. I’m heartbroken and shocked at the way the police responded.

“A total of 8 142 Wits University students are financially excluded,” says Atie, SAUJS Wits chairperson. “This means that these students passed last year in spite of all its challenges, but aren’t being allowed to return because they are in debt to the university.

“As Jews, this issue speaks to us because we have always placed a major focus on education and supporting the impoverished. It’s our responsibility to assist these students in whatever way we can.”

Indeed, the role played by the young Jewish activists has raised the profile of the fees issue within the broader Jewish community, says political analyst and former SRC activist Jamie Mighti.

“We have to be cognisant living in South Africa that there are challenges to upward social mobility, including historic poverty and exclusion,” he says. “One of the recognised ways to lift oneself up is through education. The Jewish community is world renowned for prioritising the value of education.

“To see young people like this stand in the gap with other students and use their voices reminds one of the roles played by Jews in fighting apartheid. The Jewish community will look back at this moment and say this was the birth of South African leaders and the re-emergence of Jewish activism within the broader South African conversation.”

Former SAUJS Wits chairperson, Yanir Grindler, stresses that more Jewish students need to get involved. “I’m left with a sense of anger towards the broader Jewish student population,” he says. “It has been so difficult to get them involved. A minority of Jewish students have been there on a consistent basis alongside Gabi protesting with the students. The rest are quite disconnected because they feel it doesn’t really affect them. That’s naïve, because it does.”

Farber, Porter, and Atie agree that more Jewish students need to play their part.

Says Atie, “One of the biggest criticisms we receive at SAUJS is that we come across as a union which cares only about Israel and Jews and not the larger South African community. It’s this perception of Jews that enables anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric to enter the halls of parliament and academic circles of South Africa. Only by involving ourselves in the struggle of the larger South Africa can we begin to change this perspective.”

Many academics agree that the plight of financially excluded students must be addressed.

“There are multiple stories in and around the protests,” says Bonita Meyersfeld, a professor at Wits Law School. “Do I think they’re legitimate? Absolutely. The commercial reality demands a creative and imaginative rethinking, but that’s true of the country as a whole. My experience with the first Fees Must Fall movement showed me that students are desperate.

“Ignoring that pain or painting all protestors with the same brush of judgement and intolerance will never solve the problem.”

Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor of engineering at Wits, attests that the contribution each graduate makes far exceeds the cost of educating them. “The debate isn’t between students and university management,” he says. “It’s one between all of us and our government.

“Universities don’t have the resources to solve the problem in the long run. All they can do is apply a band aid here and there in the hope of managing the short-term situation. The future of South Africa depends on how well we support education.”

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