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Not-so-festive: parties cause COVID-19 spike in community

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Back in March, COVID-19 was brought into the heart of the South African Jewish community because of a party held thousands of kilometres away. At that time, many were unaware that a pandemic was even a possibility, but now, with the losses so many have endured, parties have once again contributed to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

A small gathering of university students has led to about 40 Johannesburg Jewish families going into quarantine, and parties celebrated over Sukkot and Simchat Torah have further added to the spike in cases. In its newsletter on Friday, 16 October, Hatzolah reported 31 new cases that week, and 52 active cases in the Johannesburg Jewish community.

Professor Barry Schoub confirmed to the SA Jewish Report that one particular function “became a super-spreading event, transmitting the infection into families of the participants”. Schoub is emeritus professor of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

A letter was sent to the community by Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and leading health professionals saying that these new infections included “a number of hospitalisations”. The letter went on to say that “the majority of these cases may have come from private social gatherings and not from shuls or schools. We urge our community to be extra vigilant at this time so that the increases we are seeing don’t develop into a full-blown second wave in the Jewish community.”

Dr Anton Meyberg, a top Johannesburg pulmonologist operating from the Netcare Linksfield Hospital, said, “The impact has been dramatic and massive. We are definitely seeing it in the hospital already. I wouldn’t call this a ‘second wave’ as we are still seeing more than 1 000 cases a day in the country, so we’re still in the first wave.

“I would say that parties where people were irresponsible in their behaviour precipitated an upsurge in the community. This led to a ‘mini lockdown’, and multiple people have been admitted to hospital. If people don’t wear masks and don’t follow guidelines, these are the ramifications. You can’t entirely blame 22-year-olds – they need to be responsible, but they don’t always fully understand the ramifications of their actions.

“People have become lax in their actions, and I understand it isn’t always easy, but this surge has shown that people cannot let their guard down and that social gatherings need to follow proper protocols. This isn’t just about protecting yourself, but your whole community.”

He believes the upsurge has been “nipped in the bud”, and is hopeful that it won’t affect matrics writing exams or lead to increasing numbers in the Jewish and wider community. “My only hope is that people learn from this, and take it forward.”

Another health professional in Johannesburg, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was thanks to Meyberg’s quick response that the surge had hopefully been contained. “He put at least 40 families into quarantine,” the professional said.

A community member, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the upsurge created “quite a bit of mayhem, as families had to be split up, and people generally got a big shock”.

She said she knows that the university students’ gathering wasn’t a “wild” event, and that the young people involved are responsible, upstanding members of the community who may have felt their party was safe because it was a gathering of fewer than 10 people.

This can be compared to the more than 80 positive cases in Cape Town after a cheap drinks event at the club Tin Roof. At the time of writing, the Jewish community hasn’t been affected by this “super-spreader” party, but it could have been. “This kind of upsurge is happening in many communities, not just ours,” she says.

The Community Security Organisation in Cape Town has warned people not to become complacent. It reported that its COVID-19 monitoring programme had six COVID-positive community members in the first two weeks of September, but this doubled to 13 COVID-positive cases in the first two weeks of October.

“All over the world, second waves involve younger people and university students more significantly than the first waves,” said Johannesburg pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman. But, she pointed out that “We aren’t out of the first wave, and this isn’t even the beginning of a second wave.” She believes there will “definitely” be a second wave, as no other country has managed to avoid it.

“We can’t assume anything at this stage. We need to take this as a learning exercise, to remind us what this virus can do,” she said. “We aren’t saying you can’t socialise, but it has to be done in a different way now.” She reminded the community that people are still getting “desperately ill, struggling with every breath, and dying from this disease”.

Doctors are clear that although community leaders and institutions have poured massive amounts of funds, time, effort, and brainpower into keeping shuls and schools safe, if people drop their guard at home or at social events, the virus will still spread in the community.

Hatzolah’s Darren Kahn said the increase in positive cases fits the ebb and flow of the virus that the organisation had witnessed since the peak, and there was a similar spike after Rosh Hashanah. “We are more concerned for the week ahead, to see the effects two week post-Sukkot,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

“There has been some confusion as to the duration of the quarantine period, and whether quarantine is necessary for people who have previously been infected or have had a positive antibody test,” said Schoub. “At present, the durability and effectiveness of immunity after infection is unclear. It’s also not known whether the persistence of symptoms – the so-called “long COVID” – is a sequel to the original illness or a second infection.

“There does appear to be long-term immunity following more severe coronavirus infections such as MERS and the original SARS of 2003. However, immunity following infection with the common-cold coronaviruses is short-lasting and ineffective, as is the case with many other human respiratory infections.

“Studies of protective antibodies following COVID-19 infection haven’t been definitive, with milder cases having only short-lived and low levels. The antibody tests performed in routine clinical laboratories aren’t for neutralising antibodies, and may well not indicate protection. Indeed, some of the proven second infections have turned out to be more severe than the first illness. A further public-health concern is that second infections could further spread the virus.

“Regarding the timing of quarantine – 14 days is based on the upper limit of the incubation period of the infection,” he says. “The majority of infections do take place before 10 days, and the South African health department took a decision to reduce the quarantine period to 10 days for convenience of messaging. However, 14 days remains the period recommended by most international authorities, and should be generally adhered to wherever possible.”

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Major parties undermined by “angrier, poorer” electorate

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South Africans go to the polls on 1 November in “elections that no parties really want”, according to political journalist Stephen Grootes. In the midst of a pandemic, established parties are losing support “and people have become angrier and poorer” since the last local government elections in 2016.

Grootes was moderating a webinar on Tuesday, 12 October, titled “Navigate the local government elections 2021”, organised by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. The webinar is part of the Board’s mandate to encourage voter registration in the Jewish community, formally observe the elections, and promote political debate.

Are these municipal elections about service delivery or about elements of identity in the context of South Africa’s racialised inequality? According to Nompumelelo Runji, the founder and chief executive of Critical ThinkAR – a research and stakeholder management consultancy – it’s a little bit of both in this highly polarised society.

“Good governance isn’t just about clean audits, sewage infrastructure, and tarred roads,” she said. For many, the yardstick is whether their quality of life is improving or not. They are asking if the African National Congress (ANC) can really deliver for all rather than the elite few.

Political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga also senses popular anger, but no consolidation of support by any political party to capitalise on the ANC’s failures. “The ANC is held back by its own history,” he said, and hopes to get by on mea culpas [acknowledgement of wrongdoing] and faith. “It’s the devil people know,” Mathekga said. He judged that talk of renewal in the ANC was illusory, describing it as “a party in great difficulty”. “Corruption has been democratised in local government, with mammoth irregularities in public procurement,” Mathekga said, pointing out that criminal elements like protection rackets have filled the vacuum where the state has retreated.

Runji said local elections were “a vehicle for employment, a jobs pipeline for parties. Capacity and skills are trumped by factional allegiances. There is a failure to adhere to financial governance practices like the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act] and the MFMA [Municipal Finance Management Act].” She characterised the problem as a toxic mix of lack of responsibility, no accountability, deficient oversight, and a dearth of consequences for maladministration. “Party loyalty and dynamics become more important than delivering services,” she said.

Wayne Sussman, elections analyst for Daily Maverick, views it as a unique election in which the two major parties have little momentum 20 days before the vote.

“There are only 400 members of parliament, but there are far more council positions up for grabs,” said Sussman. In an environment of high unemployment, the prospect of a middle-class job for five years in a municipal council has proved enticing for many. Independent candidates have mushroomed, and he expects them to do marginally better because of their sheer volume. “They will find it hard to influence politics in the metros, but they will play a role in this election,” Sussman said.

Looking at opposition parties, will the Democratic Alliance (DA) be punished at the polls? A lot depends on differential turnout, according to Sussman. If the suburbs come out in numbers and disillusioned ANC voters stay at home, “the DA may not do that badly. It was the first out of the starting blocks with its posters. But to use a rugby analogy, with the try-line in front of them, they have had knock-on after knock-on in the past week.” He predicts that the party will retain Cape Town and be the biggest or second biggest party in all the country’s metropolitan councils.

“The DA seems to want to attract controversy and get into trouble, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has no plans to co-operate with anyone,” Mathekga said. “It would be shocked if it actually won a council.” He agreed that the DA often failed to read the public mood, and didn’t appear to have a real strategy for the Gauteng metros. The EFF is growing in South Africa’s neglected small towns, and the party may emerge as kingmaker in several councils, like it did in 2016. But its refusal to commit to coalitions makes for unstable politics. There is the real chance that some councils will be deadlocked and unable to agree on the election of a speaker, a mayor, and to pass the council budget. If they fail to do the latter, they will come under national administration. The speakers predicted there may be chaos like this in Tshwane, the nation’s capital.

Sussman is also carefully watching the performance of former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, which has taken a gamble by contesting only in Gauteng’s three metros (Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni) and in three municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. It has run a slick social-media campaign. “He has to do well on election night,” Sussman said. “If he does badly, it’s probably the end.”

Finally, the panellists agreed there was merit in retaining separate municipal elections, as it promoted local-level democracy. This particular election will certainly make for interesting analysis in the weeks to come.

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Back to Africa: shlicha’s journey comes full circle in Cape Town

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Exactly 30 years ago, emissaries from the Jewish Agency came to Ethiopia to tell Batya Shmueli’s family that “the way to Jerusalem is open”. Soon after, at the age of 11, she made aliyah as part of Operation Solomon. Now, she has returned to the continent of her birth as a shaliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency, closing the circle.

She and her husband, Hed Shmueli, and their three children arrived in Cape Town as shlichim the week before Pesach. She has taken on the role of aliyah and community shlicha while he is working as head of Israel education at United Herzlia Schools. With roots in Ethiopia, Romania, and Iraq, they bring the diversity of Israeli society to the southern tip of Africa.

“We always felt we would do shlichut in America or Canada,” says Shmueli. “But when we met Cape Town community leaders Esta Levitas and Julie Berman, we immediately connected and knew this was the community for us.”

It hasn’t been a simple journey. “When we were told we could come to Israel, my father was 81 years old. Every Jew in Ethiopia had waited for this moment. It was the first time I saw my father cry,” Shmueli recalls. The family had lived a difficult life, needing to hide their Jewish identity and battle for survival. While the flight was a moment of joy, adapting to life in Israel wasn’t easy.

“We lived in a caravan near a small town in the Galilee. After living there for three years, I attended boarding school. It was a tremendous culture shock,” she says. Wanting to blend in and be accepted, she threw off her family’s religious values and tried to become a secular teenager. “I even made my hair blonde!” she laughs. She learned Hebrew quickly, and tried to distance herself from her parents and her past.

But after school, she finally started to embrace her history and identity as an Ethiopian Jew. She found out that it was members of the Israeli Navy along with Mossad who had come to Sudan to help Ethiopian Jews come to Israel, and became inspired to join the navy during her army service to “close the circle”. Eventually, she served in the Israeli Navy with an elite naval commando unit.

“My father passed away before he could see me in uniform. So many people helped me in my journey in Israel. This was my opportunity to serve and give back,” she says.

It was in the navy that she met Hed whose family came to Israel from Iraq and Romania. He also had a connection to Africa. “After tragically losing his father, who was only 51 years old, he decided to take himself on a journey to discover the world. Being an artist and sculptor, he spent time as a volunteer arts project leader in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and learning traditional East-African wood carving in Kenya,” says Shmueli.

“After returning to Israel, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs sponsored an artists’ mission to Dakar, Senegal. Hed was involved in co-ordinating and leading a group of Israeli artists sent as cultural representatives to Senegal for Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations.”

She also travelled after the army, spending a year in Los Angeles. It was there than she began to regret turning away from her identity and vowed “to return to my roots and culture”.

“I cried a lot that year, thinking about the pain and loss that my parents’ generation felt,” Shmueli says. “I wanted to go back to Israel and explain who we are as Ethiopian Jews. I wanted to be the voice of my parents.”

Returning to Israel, she realised she couldn’t “wait to be invited” to share her story, she had to just start doing it. She began to address audiences, sharing Ethiopian Jewish customs, culture, and cooking. She also got her Bachelor of Arts from Haifa University, where she studied teaching and the history of the Jewish people. She later received her Master’s degree in the history of Israel and Jewish law.

She then developed a programme that taught students about leadership and responsibility. In 2009, she returned to Ethiopia with the Israeli foreign ministry to teach village women about entrepreneurship. For the past 11 years, she has been fundraising for new immigrant populations.

When deciding where to raise their family, the Shmuelis chose to settle in the beautiful artists’ village of Ein Hod. It was a very secular community, however, so they decided to bring their passion for Judaism into the fold by commissioning a Sefer Torah for the village. It was made in the name of their late fathers, who had taught them to hold onto their Jewish heritage no matter what. “One thousand people came to the hachnasat [welcoming] Torah event,” recalls Shmueli. “There were Israelis from every sector of society.”

Eighteen years ago, they also opened their home to travellers hiking the Israel National Trail from the south to the north of Israel. Calling it “Avraham’s Tent”, they hosted more than 20 000 travellers.

The Shmuelis bring all of this passion and purpose with them to their shlichut in Cape Town. Their determination has seen them through delay in arrival as a result of the pandemic. In addition, their three children battled with being uprooted and being under lockdown.

“Israel is a country of children, and there is so much freedom for kids. So they have struggled, but we feel this is the best gift we can give them,” says Shmueli. “We are showing them that they belong to the Jewish people, and to bring that opportunity for connection to others.”

They believe they are in the right place at the right time. “After 20 minutes of talking to Esta and Julie, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is the correct place for us’. It’s a unique community with a unique history. This isn’t just about a new job, it’s something much deeper. We feel it’s the time to support the Jewish community.”

They have spent the past few months immersing themselves in the community and its organisations. “It’s so unique. It’s not every day that you see a community where all the Jewish children go to the same school and where there is so much support for everyone who needs it,” she says.

Just like she was given so many opportunities when she started her new life in Israel, she wants to create awareness about the possibilities that Israel provides, especially for the younger generation. She wants to help the youth feel proud of their heritage and connection with Israel.

“I want to be a bridge between Israel and South Africa,” she says. “We live our shlichut day and night, and are here for the community at any time. And we are here to learn from you too.”

They plan to meet people from all walks of life, sharing the diversity of their family and Israeli society. “We won’t apologise for who we are … we stand strong,” says Shmueli. At the same time, she encourages questions, discussion, and debate.

“The Ethiopian Jewish community never gave up on their dream of going to Jerusalem,” she says. Being part of the generation that got to go back to Israel means that she sees her shlichut as a continuation of that journey. “To be back in Africa as Israelis for the Jewish community – I thank G-d for showing us the way.”

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Israeli company brings SA dam back to life

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Just before Pesach this year, the SA Jewish Report detailed how leading global “watertech” company, BlueGreen Water Technologies, was assisting local government authorities to transform toxic water into healthy drinking water at Setumo Dam on the Molopo River in North West province.

Six months later, the company has announced that its water clean-up intervention has been successfully completed. For the first time in decades, the people of Mahikeng are receiving safe drinking water from their main water supply source, which was severely contaminated by toxic algae blooms. The project was in collaboration with Sedibeng Water, the company overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

“BlueGreen is committed to making water safe,” says Eyal Harel, the chief executive and co-founder of the company. “We undertook this project pro-bono, knowing it was the only chance for this community to access clean drinking water, enjoy Setumo Dam as a safe water source, and unleash its potential for recreational purposes. We wish to empower local authorities to reclaim their water sources and advance the health and livelihood of their communities.

“To clear Setumo Dam was an unprecedented technical and operational challenge, with far-reaching consequences for the rural community that relies on it,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “The project has not only confirmed BlueGreen’s ability to remediate lakes under the toughest conditions, but also improved water quality and water availability. Setumo Dam can now be used not only as a source of drinking water but also as a local attraction for recreation. The economic development possibilities in and around the lake are far-reaching.”

The outbreak at Setumo Dam was considered one of the worst cases in South Africa. The heavy load of blue-green algae was the result of decades of insufficiently treated sewage being released directly into the dam. The dam’s size and level of contamination had deemed it “untreatable”.

BlueGreen’s treatment protocol was tailored to the unique conditions in Setumo Dam by BlueGreen’s field specialists. It also eliminated unpleasant taste and odour compounds from the drinking water.

“The unique situation we found in the field brought about two previously unaddressed challenges,” says Harel. “The first was the rural location and lack of basic infrastructure. This mandated an out-of-the-box logistical adaptation so that our treatment could be delivered timely and accurately.

“In addition, we encountered extreme biological conditions that rendered the entire dam a dead aquatic zone. Reviving the lake meant tailoring a specific treatment protocol that would reverse infectious processes that have been dominating the dam for decades, and give a fighting chance to non-toxic species that would enhance the lake’s biodiversity. As time went by, changes became evident from treatment, not only in the colour of the water, but a clear change in the number of animals, primarily birds, approaching the water, as well as an increase in their diversity.

“Shortly before starting treatment, we witnessed the local community performing rituals that involved entering Setumo Dam’s toxic water. We saw some fishermen trying to catch the few small fish that survived the harsh conditions. We grasped how under-developed the area was, in spite of its amazing potential. And we realised that once cleaned, we wouldn’t just improve the health and livelihood of the people around Setumo Dam, we would create a historical opportunity for local authorities to turn the lake into a place that could bring about much-needed development and prosperity.”

Asked if the company will work in South Africa again, Harel says, “As part of our work at Setumo Dam, we tried to establish an economic model that will allow us to repeat this in other under-developed areas in South Africa and around the world. We have established that a clean Setumo Dam saves the local community as much as 90% of their ongoing drinking water production cost! We hope that these findings will push other communities into action to reclaim and revive their water sources.

“Years of drought, pollution, growing population, and global warming have all contributed to South Africa’s deteriorating water availability and water quality,” he says. “Water has turned into a matter of national security. BlueGreen has made it part of its business to support local, rural communities, and establish their basic human right to clean water. Our means to remediate Setumo Dam’s water couldn’t have been put into play if not for the tremendous help of local government, including South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation and Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, local water boards (Sedibeng Water and Rand Water), as well as the active support of our local partners, AECI group and Capitol Air. This united effort and commitment by so many is heartwarming, and an encouraging indication of South Africa’s innate ability to overcome great challenges.”

Jurgens van Loggerenberg, the director of Africa for BlueGreen Water Technologies says, “The project has had a positive impacted on more than half a million lives as a direct result of improved water quality. Setumo Dam’s high cyanobacterial cell content [billions of cells per millilitre] far surpassed the levels deemed safe and approved by the World Health Organization and the South African Bureau of Standards.

“The heavy organic load was also disrupting the ability of the local water treatment plant to operate, increasing the overall costs substantially and keeping the final water quality well below national and international standards. This historical achievement is the result of a joint effort that included the Department of Water and Sanitation, Sedibeng Water, and Rand Water Analytical Services working together.”

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