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Raging regret as super-spreader event hits community

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A matric pupil lies in high care at a Johannesburg Netcare hospital. Her peers are being admitted to hospital or are locked down, battling respiratory symptoms, fatigue, body aches, and nausea.

Families are quarantined and long-awaited holiday plans are put on hold. Doctors and virologists fear a wave of contagion that will impact our most vulnerable. All because of a single celebration – Rage in Ballito from 27 November to 4 December, declared a “super-spreader event” by the health department on 6 December.

“I don’t know of a single matriculant that didn’t catch COVID-19 there,” says one mother, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s been an unmitigated disaster,” says physician and pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg. “The worst part is that parents are saying they weren’t warned, so I’m not sure what we’ve been doing for the past 10 months. These kids are now sick, many have co-morbidities and some have been admitted to hospital. Everyone thinks young people can’t get sick, but this virus doesn’t have any boundaries. There are no rules for COVID-19.”

General practitioner Dr Daniel Israel agrees. “It’s madness. We’re seeing a lot of panic. There’s definitely a three or fourfold increase in cases [in Johannesburg]. Matric Rage should never have happened because it was so tempting for teens. It’s putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.”

Subsequent Rage weeks at other coastal towns, which traditionally allow Grade 12s to celebrate the end of school, have been cancelled in light of the rate of infection at Ballito.

A matriculant who went on Rage and contracted COVID-19, says, “I knew the risks, but I had so much taken away this year. I had nothing to look forward to. Going on Rage felt like it was only fair. I haven’t seen friends, I walked around my own home with a mask on since September, I haven’t touched my family. It’s just been work, online lessons, extra lessons, and studying.” Now locked away in her room, she is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms including body aches, headaches, and fatigue.

“I was anxious about going. I knew the huge risk. I was really scared, as were three of my friends. At one stage, we considered pulling out, but then decided to go. We were as careful as we could be. But once you’re there, it’s so different. To keep your mask on the whole time is so unrealistic. You eat together, you’re in your room together, and you can’t sleep with your mask on. So it’s all pointless.

“The actual Rage events were so strict. They would stop the music if people weren’t keeping a social distance. They refused to let people in if it reached the limit, and blasted sirens to remind people to keep apart. There was also a police presence,” she says.

“A lot of people went to restaurants and clubs where it wasn’t so strict. I think it was mainly spread at restaurants, and I saw the people making my food had pulled down their masks. The Rage organisers tried their best – we weren’t even allowed to buy alcoholic drinks at their events, so many people got bored and left. I don’t want to spread the virus, and have been really careful since I got back.”

A mother whose daughter attended Rage and contracted the virus blames the organisers. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she says there was “immense pressure on parents” to allow their children to attend the event.

“I know better, and I realise the extent of COVID-19. Yet we still sent our kids because of the huge Rage marketing campaign that has been going on since last year. There was talk of cancelling, but then it went ahead and they kept kids as interested as they could. Parents couldn’t say no in the face of that campaign and after a year of lockdown. From the outset, it should have cancelled.

“Yes we can blame parents and some are regretting that they didn’t exert their authority, but the fact is that we’ve kept 18-year-olds locked up for a year. They were told there was a party happening and it would be safe. But there was no way to make it COVID-safe. It was negligent of the organisers to put that bait there. They may have got regulations passed and protocols in place, but it doesn’t mean anything. It was a recipe for disaster.” She is angry and admits that, “While sending my child on Rage was negligent, I didn’t have a choice. There was extreme pressure that came with the event being offered.”

Another parent whose son contracted the virus on Rage says, “Rage was the one thing that got my child through matric. He had the time of his life, but at what cost? We have been so careful, but we just couldn’t say no to this. I was hoping the government wouldn’t allow it, but when it went ahead, I must admit I wanted him to have fun and put the struggle of this year behind him.”

Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) says, “The risk of lots of people being infected from this event is very high because of the very close contact with other attendees . We are going to see the secondary effects on healthcare workers, families, the elderly, and those with co-morbidities within the community. Matrics really need to take responsibility now to break the chain of transmission, but it is likely the spread has already occurred.

“All those who attended Rage must quarantine for 10 days post last contact with anyone from Rage, irrespective of presence of symptoms or not,” she says. “If any attendees develop symptoms they need to test for the virus and follow national guidelines. It is recommended that all attendees have a COVID test – if no symptoms then probably testing seven days after last contact with someone at Rage would be a reasonable time.

“Even a negative test doesn’t exclude COVID-19 – the tests aren’t 100% sensitive and the virus could still be incubating. So you must self-isolate for 10 days from your last point of contact with anyone who was at Rage, irrespective of your test results,” she says.

Says Israel, “People didn’t get COVID-19 on Rage because they went to a hotspot, they got COVID-19 because the behaviour at these events was inappropriate. This time is about taking personal responsibility. The same way you wouldn’t go outside and not wear clothes, you shouldn’t go outside and not protect yourself against the immediate COVID-19 risks around you. Matrics have now gone back to their communities, and they are likely to spread it to their families, who will now travel again. There needs to be immediate containment.”

Says Meyberg, “We’ve all been restricted in some way this year, so you can’t say matrics are different to other groups. This has been a huge wake-up call to people in the community, and I’m seeing more people wearing masks and being careful. We are now trusting that people will quarantine. We also need to comply now so that next year, people are able to go back to school, work, and university.”

Says Israel, “Rage definitely increased anxiety in the community. We’ll will see whether the quick action of GPs, the NICD, and the health department is going to prevent secondary infections. Time will tell.”

Picture: from a pre-COVID-19 Rage party.

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Second wave surges over community

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The second wave of COVID-19 is currently crashing over the South African Jewish community, leaving tragedy, despair, and fear in its wake. In Cape Town, one community member reported her relative’s funeral this week was delayed as there were “too many bodies” that needed to be buried.

“We are entering into the peak of the second wave in Gauteng,” says top Johannesburg pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg. “Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that it could be worse than the first wave, but it is. G-d help us as we travel this road.

“Multiple people in our community are being quarantined or isolated. There are much younger, sicker people, and they are scared, anxious, and fragile. The wards are rapidly over-filling. Healthcare-worker fatigue is the new norm.”

Eric Berger, the director of the Cemetery Maintenance Board in Cape Town, says, “We have seen a spike in the number of deaths over the past two weeks, and expect this to continue for the next five to ten days.”

Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, Chevrah Kadisha (Chev) Chief Executive Saul Tomson says, “The total deaths in December were up 37% compared to the five-year average”.

“The second wave seems to have affected our community with much greater force than the first,” says general practitioner Dr Orit Laskov, whose practice is in the heart of Sea Point. “At our practice, we are seeing huge numbers of people contacting us daily with symptoms and testing positive, and increasing distress. People aren’t able to care for loved ones. Patients are anxious about developing severe complications and needing to go to hospital.

“The virus is affecting almost all age groups and unfortunately, we continue to see irresponsible behaviour and choices resulting in ‘pods’ of infection among people in the community and whole families affected, with multiple deaths in one family now not uncommon,” says Laskov.

“People need to behave like we are in level 4 or 5 lockdown to protect themselves and their families, and any onset of symptoms must be taken seriously. Don’t be in denial. If it could be COVID-19 then it probably is COVID-19 at the moment,” she says.

The director of the Community Security Organisation in Cape Town, Loren Raize, agrees that the second wave has drastically increased cases within the community. “In June, we were taking care of 53 patients on our COVID-19 wellness programme. In December, at one stage we had more than 200 active cases to manage, many of whom had to be hospitalised, and sadly there have been a number of deaths. During the first peak, by day 10 the vast majority of patients were ready to come off the programme. This time around, we are taking care of patients for 14 days plus.

“On average, we service 90 calls per month, whereas in December, we had more than 360 calls. Over and above this, we sent a mobile logistics unit to service Plettenberg Bay and surrounds during this time, as well as assisting Hatzolah with cases of Johannesburg patients on holiday in Cape Town,” says Raize.

In Johannesburg, Hatzolah volunteers and staff say they are too busy working in the community to respond to questions, but that the numbers recorded on their wellness programme “say it all”. Just in the week preceding 8 January, they took on 225 new cases. Twenty-eight people were admitted to hospital, and 19 people were put on home oxygen.

Considering the statistics that Hatzolah puts out on a weekly basis, SA Jewish Report Chairperson Howard Sackstein has worked out that an average of 34.3 people in our community in Johannesburg are contracting the virus daily at the moment.

One community member in Johannesburg, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “The pain, aches, dizziness, nausea, and headaches are so bad that I cried. The isolation of being in a room alone for 14 days and the guilt isn’t for the faint-hearted.” She says her 10-year-old son has symptoms, and while an initial test came back negative, he will be tested again. “I wasn’t able to love, hug, or be a mom to him. He was scared, and I couldn’t comfort my precious child.” She is endlessly grateful to Hatzolah for monitoring them both daily.

Tomson says there was a decrease in community deaths in October and November, which was down year-on-year, but compared to the five-year average, there was a 17% increase in community deaths in 2020.

Within the Chevrah Kadisha’s residential facilities, “We have been blessed for many months to have no COVID-19 infections, which is miraculous. We are still being extremely vigilant with protocols. We’ve stopped in-person visitations, but digital visits remain very popular. Funerals have been very small.

“We have seen tremendous trauma with families not being able to attend funerals, spouses not being able to attend because they’re COVID-19 positive, and families overseas. Our bereavement counselling services have been there to support the community through this time, and it’s been very difficult. In some instances, families have been brought in special vehicles to the funeral if they are COVID-19 positive,” Tomson says.

“The Chev’s staff and volunteers remain committed in the face of danger. COVID-19 deaths present risk when collecting, preparing, and burying the deceased,” he says. “Credit needs to be given to those brave people – volunteers and staff – committed to burying with dignity and compassion in spite of the challenges they face.”

In Cape Town’s Highlands House Home for Jewish Aged, two residents have been lost to COVID-19 in the past week, and two have COVID-19.

The disease has had a huge impact on the small but strong Durban Jewish community. “Since the beginning of December, the community’s Crisis Management Team has monitored 106 people, with 15 having to be hospitalised. We are aware of many others in the community that we aren’t actively monitoring,” says South African Jewish Board of Deputies KwaZulu-Natal Council President Jeremy Droyman.

“At one stage, we were actively monitoring 60 people simultaneously. Currently, we have 32 active cases. Sadly, there have been six deaths.” Jewish aged home Beth Shalom has had two positive cases and one death during the second wave.

“One of the things that is probably under-reported is the impact of people not being able to see their loved ones when they’re in hospital, and tragically when they die,” he says. “This is having a big impact on families because normally they would have some time to come to peace with the passing of their family, and COVID-19 has meant the people are dying alone in hospital, which is awful.”

Institutions continue to battle the effects of the surge. “It’s been a really tough period,” says Shelly Korn, the director of the Glendale Home for Jewish Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in Cape Town, which lost two residents to the virus in 2020. “We had many of our staff sick all at once. We have been working with skeleton staff and are really struggling. We are also finding that people who have recovered and are coming back to work are battling with recovery. They can’t work full days, and have issues with energy and breathing. In terms of testing and personal protective equipment, it has been an expensive exercise.

“Now everyone knows someone who has been in hospital. Everyone knows someone who has succumbed to this deadly virus,” says Meyberg. “It’s time to stand up and be counted – wear your mask, keep a social distance, be responsible,” he pleads.

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Dlamini puts “Hitler loving” past behind him

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Six years ago, infamous campus rabble rouser and Fees Must Fall student activist Mcebo Dlamini was a fiery, Israel-bashing antisemite prone to hurtful and divisive words, including his love and admiration for Hitler.

Today, he appears to be a different man. The erstwhile University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) student representative council president says he has had time to reflect on what he now admits was a shameful and misguided period in the impressionable springtime of his political career.

“I was naïve and overwhelmed by the space I occupied as a young leader. I lacked a role model and mentor to guide me,” a repentant Dlamini told the SA Jewish Report this week.

Just two days before the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) accepted a written apology from Dlamini and engaged in mediation with him, facilitated by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). It was a poignant moment – many years overdue – that has been praised as an example of true reconciliation.

The mediation took place at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), where Dlamini was introduced to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocides following a facilitated educational engagement with the permanent exhibition at the JHGC.

“It made a huge impact,” he said this week.

“I felt a big sense of relief when my apology was accepted. I never thought this would end amicably,” said Dlamini who was “very nervous” the first time he visited the offices of Zev Krengel, the vice-chairperson of the SAJBD.

“He thought he was going to be arrested,” said Krengel this week, as the two men sipped coffee together in his office and recalled the day last year when Dlamini arrived at his office hoping finally to make amends.

What motivated the passionate Swaziland-born firebrand, who was found guilty of public violence for his part on the 2016 Fees Must Fall protests, to apologise now?

“I found I was no longer in a position to be taken seriously,” he lamented this week.

“What I said weighed heavily on my shoulders and persistently blocked my growth in social-justice activism. I found I couldn’t touch lives because I had destroyed lives. I want to be a human-rights lawyer, but how could I talk about love, reconciliation, and peace when I had made these comments?”

The SAJBD lodged a formal complaint against Dlamini with the SAHRC in 2015. In April that year, Dlamini took to Facebook and wrote, “I love Adolf Hitler. In every white person there is an element of Adolf Hitler”.

Then, during a live interview on PowerFM in June 2015, he said of Jewish people, “They are devils. They are good for nothing. They are hypocritical … they are uncircumcised in heart.”

There were other comments. Each time, he seemed to get more followers on Facebook.

“You get carried away in that process, and no one tells you that what you are doing is hurtful and dangerous and can damage your future career,” he said.

Much of Dlamini’s childhood was in Kamhlushwa in Mpumalanga, where his mother introduced him to politics from a young age. “She taught me about Pan-Africanism, and politics was part of our lives,” he said.

Dlamini became swept up in the heady induction phase of student politics. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Progressive Youth Alliance (consisting of progressive students of the South African Students’ Congress, the African National Congress Youth League, and the Young Communist League).

“Apart from many issues, the Middle East conflict always comes up for discussion. There is a dominant pro-Palestine narrative which I realise is biased and one-sided,” he said, admitting that he became “damaged” by it.

Following months of introspection and discussions on the Middle East, he now understands that it’s a multi-faceted, highly complex affair requiring empathy and understanding on both sides.

This journey, he said, made him realise that in order to pursue the noble fight for human rights, he had to acknowledge and make amends for his own ill-informed personal biases and prejudices.

Towards the end of last year, Dlamini asked his comrade, Wits law graduate and Africans for Peace co-ordinator Klaas Masilo Mokgomole, to help him address this longstanding issue.

Mokgomole sided with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa movement at Wits until he was encouraged to learn about both sides following an educative trip to Israel and an ongoing commitment to understand the struggle.

Together with student leader Cebolenkosi Khumalo, they arrived at Krengel’s offices in November in the hope of reaching an amicable outcome. Krengel told the SA Jewish Report he was intrigued by Dlamini’s visit after so many years of unresolved animosity between Dlamini and the community.

“I was interested to hear what he had to say,” said Krengel, who was pleased when Dlamini showed genuine remorse.

Following a process of mediation, Krengel said, “The sincerity with which Dlamini acknowledged the hurt that he caused our community was palpable. This understanding prompted him to make an unequivocal apology which was truly remorseful.”

He told the SA Jewish Report that Dlamini recognised that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive.

“This recognition together with his genuine apology enables us to heal from the hurt he caused. It’s important for us as a community and as South Africans to identify when genuine remorse is expressed. It’s equally important for us to accept a sincere apology of this nature as it enables us to move forward.”

In his written apology, Dlamini said, amongst other points, “It’s only in retrospect that I began to appreciate how much my statements were ill-advised and to a certain extent dangerous because they ignored the kind of trauma that they caused. My journey has made me appreciate that I was wrong, and there is no possible excuse for what I said and there can be no way to reverse how it affected others. What I can do is supplement my apology with actions as testimony that I’m truly remorseful.

“I’m committed to engaging with literature that will assist me in learning about the history of Jewish and Israeli people to understand why my sentiments were offensive. Once I have this in-depth knowledge, I commit to teaching others about the knowledge I acquired.”

He said he wanted to travel to Israel to gain an understanding of how the Jewish people’s present is shaped by their past.

“I have thought deeply about the kind of leader I want to be, and it’s definitely not a leader that spreads hate and rejoices at the misfortunes of others.

“This marks a new chapter for me, and I’m hoping I can move forward.”

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Criticism for second shul shutdown in 10 months

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For the second time in 10 months, shuls have had to close their doors as COVID-19 rampages across the country.

While most within the community have accepted the restriction in the face of an overwhelming second wave, the closures have drawn some criticism from those not willing to give up their regular minyanim.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced two weeks ago that the country would move to lockdown level three as infections rose sharply during the holiday season. This included the reintroduction of the ban on religious gatherings, closing shuls that had reopened in October last year.

Although the ban was initially set to end later this week, Ramaphosa extended it in his address on Monday evening.

The closure of shuls is a necessity in the fight against the virus, says Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

“With the introduction of regulations and the extension, the president is looking not just at shuls but all places of worships across the country,” he told the SA Jewish Report this week. “His decision is driven by factors going way beyond our own community.

“We cannot judge the decision in terms of our own shuls, which have done amazingly well and remained as safe as possible,” the chief rabbi says. “We need to recognise that we are citizens of this country and are committed to upholding the law so as to ensure that every person around us is safe.

“It’s sad for us. We love our shuls. They are part of our lives, but we have a responsibility to promote health, safety, and support the fight against this disease.”

Goldstein commended the shuls and their rabbis for their commitment to caring for their members and adhering to protocols.

“They were incredible in their dedication to the protocols,” he says. “People appreciated it, and many felt that, outside their homes, the shuls were the safest places to be.”

The chief rabbi also paid tribute to Ramaphosa, saying that the president had given great consideration to the input from religious leaders from across the spectrum at an interfaith meeting held this past Sunday before Monday’s announcement.

From a health perspective, the closure of shuls is imperative, says emergency medicine expert Professor Efraim Kramer.

“We should actually be in a level-five lockdown at this point,” he says. “We can’t do that economically because the country would collapse. This second wave is far worse than the first, and almost every other country has gone into lockdown with lower numbers.”

Businesses, restaurants, and other hubs of economic activity are open only out of economic necessity, Kramer stressed.

“They aren’t safe just because they’re open,” he says. “If you’re not out working, you should be staying at home. People don’t seem to understand that. The closure of shuls isn’t about them being more or less safe. Unfortunately, they aren’t economic spaces, and need to stay closed.

“You cannot complain about a measure that’s in place to keep us alive. If we carry on the way we’re going with the highest death rate we’ve ever seen, how can we go back to normal? We have no right to make such a demand, no matter how safe we feel our shuls are.”

While most shuls have closed their doors, some disagree with the president’s decision. This includes Sydenham Shul’s Rabbi Yossy Goldman, who recently penned an open letter expressing support for the president but also maintaining that shuls should remain open as they are among the safest places because of their strict protocols.

“I felt strongly that there needed to be protest against the fact that shuls were closed down yet again,” Goldman told the SA Jewish Report. I was bothered that our community, including our leadership, could be blasé about shuls closing. We’ve become nonchalant about it.

“It’s become a new norm. Of course, you can daven at home, but the shul is the heartbeat of Jewish life. As special as Zoom minyanim have been, I had to make the point that we cannot become accepting of change.”

Goldman maintained that shuls are far safer than casinos, restaurants, and cinemas, which have been allowed to remain open, and said the ban on religious services shouldn’t be a blanket ban.

“It’s almost an inconsistency of the regulations,” he says. “Also, psychological, spiritual, and emotional well-being are as important as economic well-being. We need our shuls more than ever before.”

Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the rabbi of the Oxford Synagogue Centre and chairperson of the Rabbinic Association, also worries that it will be challenging to encourage people back to shul when they reopen.

“We’ve done a good job of telling people to stay home and daven, but that’s backfiring on us now,” he says. “People have taken to staying home, and it’s become a habit. It’s getting progressively harder to get people back to shul. I hope we don’t struggle in the long run.

“We’re being challenged as rabbonim. We need to reinvent what shul means and change our approach to the relationship with congregants. The role of rabbi has shifted.”

Not all minyanim have opted to shut down, however.

A minyan operating within the Glenhazel area has been operating since March 2020, and although it has moved a few times, it has operated consistently over the past 10 months.

At times held outdoors, the minyan usually has a maximum of 15 men. Those who attend maintain that the complete shutdown of a minyan is too drastic, relying on precedents found in rabbinic responses during previous pandemics in history to guide their decision.

“It never occurred to Rabbi Akiva Eiger that minyanim should be shut down,” said a representative of the minyan who asked to remain anonymous. “It was always a matter of taking reasonable precautions and getting on with life.

“I’m not aware of any response that they wrote urging that life be shut down. There has never been a situation in which Torah authorities called for such drastic measures.

“Our members are resolutely determined to daven in a minyan. The response to COVID-19 around the world and in our community has been a fiasco. We have attacked a cockroach with a bazooka and seem unperturbed about the fact that the bazooka killed two people, injured 20 others, demolished the house, and started a fire next door, all while missing the cockroach.”

He argues that the response of the Johannesburg rabbinate has been “spectacularly out of proportion to the threat posed by COVID-19”.

“Last year, when South Africa moved to level three, and religious gatherings were permitted, there was no justification whatsoever for keeping shuls officially closed. One need not be an epidemiologist to know that simple mechanisms can be put in place to ensure people’s safety.

“There is no medical reason – and certainly no religious reason – to suspend minyanim. That decision was motivated by fear and ignorance rather than prudence.”

He was equally critical of the government’s latest announcement, saying that it made no sense to ban religious gatherings while keeping other facilities open.

“It doesn’t take a genius to realise that there is no rhyme or reason to this,” he concluded. “Whether the government’s move is a deliberate attack on religion or simply another instance of ANC [African National Congress] stupidity and incompetence is immaterial. We will continue to daven in a minyan.”

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