Hasty decisions could endanger lives

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Fear and anger are holding us hostage. These two emotions are running high in our community and the country at large. They can lead us to take unnecessary chances with our health on the one hand, and hold us back from creating some semblance of normality on the other.
by PETA KROST MAUNDER | May 28, 2020

Which one of these is the reality when it comes to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Tuesday night that shuls, churches, and other houses of prayer will be allowed to open?

Why did the president make this decision when medical experts around the country clearly say that it isn’t a good idea as it’s too difficult to police, and could be hugely dangerous in spreading the virus? They believe that this is premature and dangerous.

While I totally understand the need to open our shuls for prayer as soon as possible, I don't believe any of us would choose to do it if it would endanger us or any other people in our close-knit community.

How are our rabbis and shul governing bodies going to decide who goes into shul and who doesn’t over Shabbos? Are they going to turn people away if they are over 60 and healthy? How will they know if their congregants are carrying the coronavirus or not? Are they going to take people’s temperatures when they enter shul? Even that isn’t foolproof, so it might not help in curbing the spread of the virus.

What if the shul is a tiny shtibel in a rabbi’s home? Surely, we are putting his family at risk? And what if that rabbi doesn’t feel safe in opening his shul, and chooses not to. His congregants may have to find another shul, so he would be under huge pressure to open whether he wanted to or not.

These are real issues and real questions that need answers before shuls open, no matter what the president has declared. I’m aware that as we put our newspaper to bed, the chief rabbi is in intense consultation to find answers, and I appreciate that there are no clear-cut answers yet. However, I would like to think that all those making decisions around the country – both for us and the broader South African community – are thinking with the wisest and most sensible hats on and aren’t just eager to get back to normality fast.

Yes, we need communal prayer and we need our lives back, but rushing isn’t smart if it isn’t safe.

I have been watching the schools’ approach to reopening, and have been hugely impressed with the way they are dealing with it. They have really thought things through and considered all the eventualities – the safety of their teachers, pupils, and parents. They have tripled their workload as educators but in the interests of their pupils’ well-being. I salute them! (See stories on pages 4 and 5.)

There are still many parents who won’t send their children back to school because they believe it might bring home the coronavirus. For this reason, Dr Daniel Israel’s opinion piece (opposite) is helpful.

There are also many who need to see their doctor, but are avoiding going because they are more afraid of contracting the coronavirus than dealing with a kidney infection or septic wound. The truth is, either could kill you, and only a doctor can help you. We have to be wise in our decision making, basing it on sense rather than fear.

These educational institutions and medical doctors are thinking sensibly. I’m not quite sure that the president’s decision to open houses of prayer around the country was made with the same hat on. I’m not sure what pressure was put on him to make this decision, but I am not sure we will thank him in the long run.

I would love to believe that every single house of prayer will take the precautions set out for them, but I don’t. Many of them – and I’m not talking about our beautiful large shuls or even smaller shtibels – are in tiny rooms or homes in outlying areas. How will regulations realistically be enforced there?

I know without a shadow of a doubt that the chief rabbi has our best interests at heart, which is why he’s spending so much time consulting with everyone necessary to help him find a way forward. I know that he only wants what’s best for us, and will make the right decision no matter what.

However, the president has put him in a very tough and invidious position. Our community wants to go back to shul, but is it really a wise idea?

I know how hard it was for the chief rabbi to close the shuls. He did it with such sadness, but now he and other religious leaders have to decide about opening services again. I’m sure they will take heed of the medical experts who say this is premature. And if they don’t, I hope they have taken every precaution to prevent any potential disaster.

I know we’re all anxious to start “normal” lives again, but the truth is that there won’t be normality as we know it for a long time to come. We need to accept this, and go with the flow.

We need to find it in ourselves to do our best not to let fear stop us from taking the next legitimate step, but also not to throw caution to the wind and endanger ourselves or our community and fellow South Africans.

Good yom tov and Shabbat shalom!

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