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Professor Barry Schoub: calm amidst the chaos

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NICOLA MILTZ

“The community needs you. Now,” said Zev Krengel, the vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, with an unmistakeable sound of urgency in his voice.

“You cannot go away now prof,” said Krengel, explaining that life as we know it was about to change dramatically because of COVID-19 – the dreaded novel coronavirus – the spread of which this week plunged the country into a nationwide lockdown.

Heeding the call, Schoub cancelled his flights and car rental, and his phone has been ringing practically off the hook ever since.

In the blink of an eye, this man, described by experts in the field of virology and infectious diseases as a vaccine and virus guru, has become the community’s corona explainer in chief. He fields calls, WhatsApp messages, and emails around the clock from rabbis to restaurant owners, all seeking his knowledge and advice. He has done television interviews, webinars, and daily podcasts for the board’s “Facts Not Fear” information series in which he unpacks the truth and myths of COVID-19.

“I thought at my age I had done my duty for king and country,” said Schoub this week, “but I’m back.

“I never foresaw this happening,” said the emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and former founder and director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

By this, he means a global pandemic the likes of which has not been seen since the Spanish flu in 1918.

Schoub is acutely aware that at 74, he “falls in the risk category” of elderly and therefore vulnerable.

When we met last Friday (only days away from lockdown) he was calm and relaxed, smartly dressed in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. There were no sign of scrubs, gloves, or masks for the eloquent and softly spoken father of three and grandfather of seven..

Schoub was born in Johannesburg in 1945, and lived in Saxonwold.

“I was an average, ordinary bloke at school,” he said. It’s hard to believe considering the numerous awards, accolades, and certificates achieved over the course of a highly successful career spanning 50 years in biomedical science.

He attended Parktown Boys High School, and his career in medicine was decided for him by his Russian-born father, a doctor himself, who encouraged all his children to become doctors.

So, when is it time to panic? I ask.

His answer is simple, “Never”.

“One shouldn’t panic. Full stop. It’s not productive,” he insists.

Admittedly, he said, the immediate future looked “bleak” and “the scenario isn’t great”, but he praised the government and applauded President Cyril Ramaphosa for acting swiftly, facing the burgeoning health and economic crisis head-on.

As the numbers of those infected by the virus continues to climb steadily, Schoub is confident that because of the very strict control measures put in place, the country will hopefully avoid an “epidemic explosion”.

“There is no doubt it will be painful, but it’s pivotal in terms of being able to get on top of this virus,” he said.

“An explosive epidemic happens when you don’t have strict control measures like social distancing in place. It’s characterised by a sudden, sharp, devastating, and very high level of infection, like what is being experienced in Italy.”

“The epidemic will be severe, and will affect many people,” Schoub said.

“We face a very serious public-health threat. We have a vulnerable population which has never seen this virus before,” he said, “But I think it’s unlikely there will be an explosive epidemic.”

Comforting words from a man with immaculate credentials, and who received the Order of Mapungubwe Award in Silver from the president in 2014. The award was given for his achievement in virology and invaluable contribution to infectious diseases, science, and the people of South Africa and internationally.

Schoub is regarded as one of the thought leaders in the field of HIV and AIDS research. During his career, he served as an advisor for the World Health Organization’s programmes on polio, measles, influenza, and other viruses. He has also guided the careers of many young virology scientists. His work includes more than 280 scientific publications, and 16 chapters in books.

A religious man, his passion for science and expertise in medicine culminated in the recent publication of his book, Seeing G-d Through Science: Exploring the Science Narrative to Strengthen and Deepen Faith in the Creator.

 “Stay calm. This is going to be a long haul,” Schoub says. Perhaps when all this is behind us, he will finally get to go on holiday.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joe Morris

    Mar 31, 2020 at 4:15 am

    ‘Prof Schoub, please don’t take any risks’

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