Kramer quits COVID advisory over “community flouting protocols”
One of the community’s top COVID-19 advisors this week lashed out at the community for flouting rules and putting lives at risk. Professor Efraim Kramer said he could no longer contribute to the safety of the community during the pandemic in light of this brazen behaviour.
“In a nutshell, I’m fed up,” Kramer told the SA Jewish Report. He said while the first surge “brought out the best in the community”, the second wave “brought out the worst in us”. His frustration has been mounting for some weeks in light of the number of deaths in the community. Last week, two members of his family passed away from COVID-19.
“I don’t care if I upset people. My aim is just to save lives. I don’t want to implicate anybody. The final straw came this week when President Cyril Ramaphosa allowed faith gatherings to take place, and people went to shul the next day. Where was the consultation? No meetings were held on how best to re-open shuls.”
Kramer is the head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and Professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University. He has specialised in emergency medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the Soccer World Cup in 2018. Along with other experts, he has advised the office of the chief rabbi on matters related to COVID-19 and shuls.
“I have written at least eight different protocols for things like weddings, Barmitzvahs, yom tov [gatherings], and shuls and it seems that everyone is doing what they like,” he said. “Come December, in the middle of a raging pandemic, people got in their cars or on flights and headed straight for hotspots. They flew home knowing they were infected. The results have been devastating, people have died. We’ve done this to ourselves. We’re doing it to our own.”
He said the communal leadership was “paralysed”. In a strongly worded message he sent to Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and members of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, he wrote, “Please note, with regret, that I have withdrawn from all community COVID-19 commitments and communications due to the total disregard and ignoring of the various safety protocols developed for the shuls and the community by many. I will no longer consult on any COVID-19 issue because it generally amounts to nothing as most people are still intent on doing their own thing anyway, in spite of advice to the contrary. But then, who am I to give advice anyway.”
Kramer said he had received countless complaints from members of the community afraid to attend large simchas which had been taking place “as if things are normal”. On Wednesday, he received another complaint from a community member who lamented that while a caterer was following protocols, guests were dancing, hugging, and behaving as if it was a pre-COVID-19 wedding.
“I drive past a shul every day and see countless cars outside. There have been minyanim taking place. The shuls have relaxed their protocols. I went into a bakery last week, and things were haywire. People were on top of each other using the same tongs and there was no safe distancing. It was a disgrace. As a doctor, I can’t fight this anymore. I’m going back to hospitals where at least the patients appreciate what I’m doing.
“While many people are being very careful, there are those who don’t care about the next guy. They think they are ‘holier than thou’ and Hashem will listen to their prayers. When you add up all the incidences, you get a picture of a community that doesn’t care for one another anymore. And where is the leadership when this is happening? How come nothing was said when shuls continued to open when it was against the law to do so and unsafe?”
Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at Wits and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said, “This is very disappointing news. Professor Kramer has been an absolutely invaluable member of our community medical advisory team and has devoted an incredible amount of his time and energy in drawing up protocols, inspecting shuls, and looking after the safety of functions. He is an international authority on mass gatherings and has world-class credentials which have been so valuable in managing the COVID-19 epidemic. I’m sad at the decision he has taken, but I do understand the intense frustration he is feeling at the attitudes he has come across in a small minority of our community and the disregarding of protocols to safeguard our community by a small minority of shuls and minyanim.”
Leading pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman said she understood Kramer’s frustration. “We’re all frustrated by people’s complete disregard for safety protocols as it’s so simple to follow the rules. We’re absolutely exhausted, and are tired of watching people struggle for each and every breath knowing that they should have worn a mask/should have kept a safe distance/should have avoided the gathering, and could have avoided getting COVID-19. You realise that you can give the same advice till you’re blue in the face, and people will choose to do what they want. We don’t act as judge, and never compromise our standard of care, going all out to fight for our patients’ lives.”
Said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, “I was disappointed and surprised to receive Professor Kramer’s resignation on the eve of the president’s announcement allowing for the reopening of shuls, which have been closed for more than a month. I have asked to meet with Professor Kramer to understand his specific concerns because the reports I have received since the reopening of our shuls in August 2020 indicate that the overwhelming majority of shuls have been outstanding and totally dedicated to the implementation of the health and safety protocols drafted by our full medical team.
“As a community, we will continue to be guided by Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, who remain on our medical team, as we go forward to ensure the highest standards of safety for our community. On behalf of our community, I want to thank Professor Kramer for his months of tireless volunteer work to train and prepare our shuls to function safely in this pandemic.”
Wendy Kahn, the executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “We have no knowledge about Professor Kramer’s resignation or the reasons for it. We commend him for his amazing contribution to our community.”
Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, said he was “shocked, surprised, and upset” when he received Kramer’s message. “We are so grateful for his service, and he is so respected. He sat with every rabbi and advised us. And even though he was very strict, we listened to him!
“I know that all shuls have followed his protocols with proper distancing, screening, hand sanitising, and masks – this is being enforced. I also know there have been private minyanim not under our jurisdiction where I believe there were minimal to nil protocols. On behalf of the rabbonim and shuls, I say that we are doing the best we can. It’s sad that people have acted this way leading to this decision, but we will continue to be vigilant.”
‘Wake up!’ say doctors, as third wave ramps up
Communal experts this week issued a stern warning to “catch a wake up” as the community has been hard hit by death, severe illness, and an unprecedented number of infections which continue to rise daily during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is extremely severe,” warned Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare Group. “In Gauteng, we are in the eye of the storm, with things set to get a lot worse than they are.
“We should all be doing what we can to prevent a single death, to prevent people from having to be admitted to hospital,” he said.
The death rate has risen at hospitals, and hospital stays are about 20% longer, exacerbating the shortage of beds, especially in Gauteng, which is leading the uptick in infections.
“As I walk through our COVID-19 units, I see people struggling to breathe, fighting to survive this shocking pandemic. Every day, we are reminded of the pain, the suffering, and the enormous loss that it brings,” Friedland said.
Issuing a plea to the community to be hyper vigilant, he said, “I want to be abundantly clear that there can be no place for a lackadaisical approach.”
Several doctors this week told the SA Jewish Report that the situation was dire, with one doctor describing it as a “battlefield”.
“Patients, some quite young with no comorbidities, are really sick, with the vast majority on one form of ventilation or another,” said Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.
“Some severely ill patients are being temporarily managed in casualty because there are simply no intensive-care beds available at other hospitals,” she said.
“We are seeing a fairly young cohort, some with no underlying conditions, who are becoming seriously ill. The variants are more virulent and transmissible. We have had quite a lot of patients who have had COVID-19 before or who have received the vaccine, and got it.”
“We treat more aggressively, but there’s still no magic drug. We’re doing everything we can to turn the inflammatory response around. It takes some longer than others,” she said.
“Sadly, some people over 60 believe that once they have had the virus or the vaccine, they are safe. They aren’t. A lot of families including couples and their children are being infected,” she said.
At the time of going to print, Hatzolah had 501 active patients with 64 patients requiring oxygen at home. At least 11.7% of the active cases include children and young adults under the age of 20.
“There are a higher number of younger people including children than in the previous waves,” said Dr Anton Meyberg of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.
Sadly, the majority of patients are still the elderly over 60, but doctors have noticed a rise in the number of patients between the ages of 40 to 60, many requiring hospital admission.
There appears to be a disproportionately higher number of cases within the community, with doctors putting this down to complacency and carelessness about observing protocols.
“There is more testing, but people aren’t following the rules,” said Meyberg, “People who have been vaccinated are becoming lax, and there is a large asymptomatic spread of the virus.”
The country technically entered its third wave on Thursday, 10 June. According to the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, a new wave starts when the seven-day moving average of new infections surpasses 30% of the previous wave.
More than 70% of the new cases are now in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where there is evidence of a resurgence after a period of recovery, and there are daily increases in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
According to experts, the next two weeks will be particularly severe in Gauteng as the numbers steadily increase. Cape Town is a few weeks behind, they say.
Private-sector hospital admissions have increased four-fold since April. More than 500 patients are being admitted a day in the private sector in Gauteng, which is putting enormous strain on emergency departments fighting to open as many beds as possible to make space.
According to Hatzolah Chairperson Lance Abramson, there were 263 active cases at the peak of the first wave, 333 cases at the peak of the second wave, and now there are more than 500 active cases “with no peak in sight yet”.
“There are a staggering number of active cases in the Johannesburg Jewish community,” he said.
“Ambulances are transporting multiple COVID-19-positive patients to hospitals daily, where it is sometimes difficult to find a hospital bed. Patients are sometimes having to wait in ambulances in the parking lots of hospitals. This is very challenging for teams on the ground,” he said.
The organisation is also looking after 64 patients on home oxygen where they are closely monitored, Abramson said.
The organisation’s nurses are seeing between 80 to 100 patients a day.
Interestingly, Hatzolah has had 238 patients on the programme who have had a vaccine. Of those, 171 had received the first Pfizer vaccine, and 83 had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two the AstraZeneca, and one Moderna. Thirty eight patients have been fully vaccinated and of those, only one required hospitalisation and has since recovered, he said.
According to Dr Ryan Noach, the chief executive of Discovery Health, globally, vaccinations have materially slowed the progression of new cases and deaths. There are early signs of reduced COVID-19 infection rates among the vaccinated pollution in South Africa post 15 days after vaccination.
“There are signs that the first dose is working, with early data showing that there are less admissions post vaccination and fewer deaths,” he said.
Worryingly, he said, “The data points to the potential for a very severe third wave, and we’re seeing the beginning of it only now.”
He said more than 50% of adults 70 years and older require admission to hospital.
“Hospital admissions in wave three have reached the level of admissions at the peak in wave one. There are currently 2 012 Discovery members admitted to hospital, of which 526 are in intensive-care, and 275 require ventilation.
“A large number of people are showing evidence of reinfections. Discovery members who contracted COVID-19 in the first wave have again contracted COVID-19 in the second wave. Three members have now tested positive three times,” Noach said.
On 13 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that two million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses would have to be destroyed because the United States regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, found that the main ingredient with which they were made wasn’t safe for consumption.
As a result, South Africa has no J&J doses to administer at present, setting the country back in its vaccine roll-out in the midst of a third wave. The good news is that, according to the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, J&J will replace all the doses within the next two weeks, with 300 000 due to land within a few days and another million to be released by Aspen’s Eastern Cape plant next week.
In the meantime, doctors have appealed to people to be hyper vigilant and maintain all non-pharmaceutical measures.
Archbishop’s anti-Israel stance “endangering Anglican Church”
They have had a longstanding friendship and worked closely together, but when Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein saw Anglican Church Archbishop Dr Thabo Makgoba describe the situation in the Middle East as “evil” and place all the blame on Israel, he refused to stay silent.
In a hard-hitting open letter in the Sunday edition of City Press (6 June 2021), Goldstein told the archbishop that he was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”. He explained that by supporting Hamas, “you are not only perpetuating the suffering of Palestinians and working against peace in this painful conflict, you are on the wrong side of history and in neglect of your most basic moral duty to protect the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is your parish.
“For while you castigate Israel for defending itself against violent extremists, know that the very same violent religious ideology drives extremists right here on our borders, and their intended victims are your Christian congregations.”
This isn’t the first time the chief rabbi has commented on the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA) sharp turn away from Israel. In 2019, he condemned its resolution to support “well-directed Boycott, Divestment, Sanction actions” against the Jewish state.
The letter to which the chief rabbi was referring was written by the archbishop to his constituents on 1 June 2021, titled “A pastoral letter on the tragic situation in Palestine and Israel”. Makgoba compared Israel’s policies to apartheid, and wrote among other points, “The current state of affairs is unjust and evil. We therefore call for an arms embargo to be placed on all fighting forces in the region, just as there was a United Nations arms embargo on South Africa. We also call for other pressure, including sanctions, to be imposed to bring all the parties around a conference table to negotiate a just peace. The current imbalance of power means that the Palestinians are suffering disproportionately.”
But the chief rabbi methodically explained why the accusation of apartheid was “a defamation of the Jewish state, disrespectful to the victims of apartheid, and a dangerous lie, which brings to mind the Christian blood libels against Jews in medieval Europe”. He explained how attempts to establish a Palestinian state have repeatedly been turned down by Palestinian leadership, and emphasised the genocidal essence of Hamas’s ideology.
“Over the past year alone, about 4 000 Christians in Africa have been killed by Islamist extremists – Islamists who share Hamas’s ideology. More than 4 000 churches have been burnt to the ground. Archbishop, these people were murdered because they are Christian. Where is your voice in defence of your own parishioners? Not only are you silent on this issue, you publicly support the allies of the perpetrators of these horrors,” Goldstein wrote.
The chief rabbi told the SA Jewish Report he felt it was urgent to speak out because “the militant extremism of Hamas is the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and it’s a threat to people around the world, including Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims. Hamas wants the genocide of all Jews, just as other extremist groups want the conversion and murder of all Christians. This is a struggle for human dignity, decency, and moderation. Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in this fight for freedom.”
He says it’s even more urgent now because “violent extremists are wreaking havoc in Africa and globally. This includes those on our doorstep in Mozambique. I wanted to appeal to him, to other Christian and Muslim leaders to stand together in unity against the violent extremism that is encroaching, which is a threat to us all.
“It’s important to speak the truth and say it as I see it,” Goldstein says. “To accuse Israel of being ‘evil’ demands a response. Silence is acquiescence. How can we be silent in the face of these accusations, when we know they are false? It’s about speaking up in the name of truth and justice. It’s not about personalities or emotions. It’s the moral responsibility of any human being, especially a religious leader.”
Goldstein doesn’t think this debate will have an impact on his relationship with the archbishop.
“We have been friends and colleagues for many years. He was appointed the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa a year or so before I became chief rabbi. We had a lot in common, both being relatively young appointees at the time. We’ve worked together, marched together against state capture and corruption, and interacted on many forums. South Africa is blessed to have a very strong culture of interfaith co-operation. We meet and discuss, and I don’t see this as a breach of that. I see this as having a public debate. It was the same with my letter to the president [Cyril Ramaphosa], much of this has been discussed in private meetings, but I’m putting it out there because we are debating for the good of the country.”
It’s the same reason Goldstein called on the Muslim Judicial Council and Jamiatul Ulama South Africa “to join me in imploring our communities to be tolerant of each other’s vastly differing political and religious views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. This call, made at the end of May, was rejected by those organisations.
“We can have a different view, and we can all agree to disagree, but religious leaders need to show respect, peace, and tolerance,” Goldstein said. “If religious leaders don’t stand together, then these negative forces will divide us.”
The chief rabbi feels that by condemning Israel, “the archbishop is hurting the very people he is trying to help. Israel is a bastion of freedom and dignity in the Middle East for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to worship in freedom. By supporting Hamas, the archbishop is leaving the Palestinian people to suffer under the jackboot of violence and dictatorship. Hamas doesn’t believe in negotiation, so by supporting extremism, he is pushing the option of peace further away.”
Goldstein hopes that his letter “will provoke real debate within the Anglican Church. I have heard from Anglican rank and file members that they aren’t aligned with the views of the archbishop. In addition, millions of Christians who support Israel should be able to do so without being intimidated or threatened.”
He also hopes that this debate “will lead to a time for reflection for all religious leaders” and that they will continue to meet and keep the channels of communication open, as has been the case for many years.
“What I hope will be on the agenda for the interfaith movement is commitment across the board for religious leaders to preach tolerance, peace, human dignity, and to support forces in the world to do the same,” he says. “I hope all religious leaders will oppose in every way the violent extremism that is gaining ascendency, particularly in Africa. We can agree to disagree without denigrating each other. We must call out violent extremism with one voice. This is a wake-up call that we need to take a stand.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 9 June, the archbishop said, “Nothing in my letter suggests that I support violent attacks by one community on another or that I question the right of Israel to live in peace and security and that of the Palestinians to self-determination.”
Biden’s daughter-in-law in SA for mom’s funeral
The daughter-in-law of United States President Joe Biden was on route to South Africa on Wednesday to attend her beloved mother’s funeral in Johannesburg.
Melissa Cohen-Biden, 34, who is married to the president’s son, Hunter Biden, was due to arrive in South Africa on Thursday morning, just hours before her mother, Zoe Cohen, was to be laid to rest.
Zoe, 72, passed away on Monday after a short illness.
Although Zoe was the machatenesta of the most powerful man in the Western world, she was a formidable woman of strength and inspiration in her own right.
The mother of four was a well-known and highly respected social worker for the Chevrah Kadisha for many years and had her own private practice where she specialised in adoptions and surrogacies.
Messages of support have continued to stream in on social media since her sudden passing. According to her legion of friends, Zoe touched the lives of countless people in her bid to marry babies and children with their forever homes, and helped hundreds of couples become parents.
According to her son, Garyn, a special place has been reserved for his mother at Westpark Cemetery to honour her lifetime achievements and contribution to the community.
Her friends this week said she was “a little woman with a big heart” who never had a bad word to say about anyone.
“My mother was a special angel who always put other people’s needs before her own. Even though she was small in stature, she was larger than life,” said Garyn.
He said Zoe insisted on fostering children at the family home every weekend. “We had children from Arcadia and the Princess Alice Adoption Home stay with us every weekend. We used to joke that my friends got confused between them and my real siblings. My mom felt it was important for these children to experience what it was like to be part of a family.”
She also adored animals, taking in strays and abandoned animals as well as the family’s own pets. ”Our house was sometimes called ‘Zoe’s Zoo’. This is where my sister Melissa got her love for animals,” said Garyn.
The Cohens adopted Melissa when she was three years old. “My parents had three boys and all of a sudden, there was a little sister. Melissa changed the dynamics and completed our home. We adored her from the minute she came into our lives,” he said.
Zoe was diagnosed with a brain tumour on 22 April. She had surgery 10 days later, and passed away within weeks from a host of complications.
A devastated Melissa visited her mother in Johannesburg while she recovered in hospital after surgery, and stayed for a week in the country with her father, Lee. She was accompanied by security guards wherever she went, and the visit was kept under wraps. She left South Africa with no idea that her mother would take a sudden turn for the worst.
“When Melissa was here, our mother was doing well. She couldn’t believe it when we called her to say that our mom was gone. They were very close. She is heartbroken.”
At the time of going to press, Melissa was on her way back to South Africa. The family waited for her to arrive before the funeral could take place on Thursday.
She left her baby, Beau, with Hunter in Los Angeles where the couple live.
Said Garyn, “Hunter would have loved to have joined her, but he stayed behind with Beau. He adored my mother. They got on very well from the moment they met. My parents visited Melissa and Hunter in America, and spent time with them there. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to meet Joe and Jill Biden at the time.”
Melissa’s brother, Dalan, and his wife, Amy, who live in Atlanta, joined the couple at the presidential inauguration. Their other brother, Joshua, lives in Canada and has yet to meet the Biden clan.
This will be the first time the four siblings will be together in a long time.
“It’s wonderful for us, but our mom will be missing,” said Garyn.
As tributes continue to pour in, clinical psychologist Mandy Rodrigues said Zoe was a “legend in the field of fertility”.
“Zoe has been a constant in all our lives in the field [of fertility]. How do you say goodbye to someone who has always been a wise, humble, and dedicated worker in the field you were passionate about? Someone who contributed so much time not only to making us more aware of adoption, but mentoring many of us. You always taught me to act within the confines of the law, no matter how many hearts were broken, and we shared so many cases over the years.
“I remember you as someone with integrity and so much wisdom and kindness. You always made the needs of babies and children in your care your number-one priority. Your name will always be linked to those of us you have blessed families with.”
The Cohen siblings and their father will sit shiva together at Garyn’s Johannesburg house, where, no doubt, they will reminisce about their colourful childhood.
According to the family, Zoe studied social work at the University of the Witwatersrand and worked at the Princess Alice Adoption Home for many years. She was in private practice for many years where apart from adoptions, she also did grief and trauma counselling. She often opened her home to women who had nowhere to turn, and placed thousands of abandoned children. She also worked with fertility clinics, and helped countless couples on the road to parenthood.
Due to COVID-19, the funeral will be restricted to 100 people, but it’s expected many will be turned away as her popularity knew no bounds, say her children.
She is survived by her loving husband of 50 years, Lee, children Dalan, Garyn, Joshua, and Melissa, and eight grandchildren.
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