Second wave surges over community
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.
Vaccination a jab of hope for healthcare workers
After a sleepless night marked by a mix of anxiety and excitement, Dr Mark Kadish woke up on Tuesday morning, 23 February, ready for a historic occasion: his long-awaited vaccine against COVID-19.
“I woke up on an emotional rollercoaster,” the GP told the SA Jewish Report. “I sat with my wife and reminisced about this past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it had been working in healthcare. All healthcare workers and their support staff are mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted. As I entered the vaccination environment, I was overwhelmed with emotion.”
Kadish is one of thousands of South African healthcare workers who have at last received their shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in recent days. The first leg of South Africa’s vaccine rollout programme is well underway, and in spite of some complications and frustrations, almost 40 000 healthcare workers across the country were expected to be inoculated by Wednesday, 24 February.
“I feel grateful and blessed to have received the vaccination,” says Kadish. “I feel privileged and at the same time so excited to be able to hug my family again. Driving back to my practice from my vaccine, I can honestly say I felt more hopeful and optimistic.”
The sense of relief amongst several doctors is especially significant following the frustration which beset the rollout previously. In the wake of the cancellation of the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout, many doctors were again disappointed on Sunday, when they were unable to receive their shots at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.
“A number of GPs had registered for their vaccine and went on Sunday, only to be told Baragwanath wouldn’t be running because it was a weekend,” says pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg, who had booked for this vaccination slot. “A lot of them then went to Steve Biko Academic Hospital, and it was absolute chaos.
“More than 2 000 people were there, with queues on top of each other. They don’t have the facilities for people to be there, and people were being told to leave. It was a feeding frenzy.”
Thanks to the efforts of Netcare, however, Meyberg was able to secure a second booking for Tuesday, going to Baragwanath Hospital with fellow specialist Dr Carron Zinman.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Zinman. “The process was organised and efficient, with healthcare workers standing in designated queues with strict distancing. I joined the Netcare queue, presented my ID and booking number, and completed some forms. It felt like I was back at school.”
Carefully spaced groups of vaccinees were ushered into a hall and positioned at individual stations, greeted by a nurse ready to administer the vaccine.
Zinman recounts, “Bara had drawn up individual doses. There was a syringe with your name and number on it waiting, and after you got it, they waited to see if you had any immediate reaction. Women burst into song and clapped as we stepped outside to be monitored for anaphylactic reaction. It was a beautiful moment.”
Though the vaccine won’t change her social distancing habits or wearing of personal protective equipment, Zinman says it offers some relief and hope.
“I’m happy it’s done,” she says. “We’re still seeing positive patients, and though we’re wearing our equipment, you have a feeling that maybe the vaccine adds another layer of protection.”
Meyberg was equally elated.
“Fighting COVID-19 means working hard, putting life on hold, and risking your family,” he says. “The vaccine felt like getting some hakarat hatov [gratitude], something to say that people appreciate the risks you and your family take daily.”
Other healthcare workers in the Jewish community had equally moving experiences, in spite of many initially being let down by events on Sunday.
“I was as nervous about driving to Bara as I was about getting the vaccination,” admits GP Dr Lana Marcus. “I hadn’t been there since 2006. There was a lot of anxiety about logistics and parking, and obviously about the vaccine.
“I had an idea of what to expect based on photos shared by other GPs, and I was really impressed with the setup. It was smooth, there was no crowding, it was well-explained, and the staff were friendly.
“I now no longer have the holy terror of catching COVID-19.”
Dr Monique Price, the Chevrah Kadisha’s senior medical doctor, described her vaccination as an out-of-body experience.
“My rescheduled appointment was at 15:20 on Monday, and within a few minutes, I was in the observation area,” she says.
“When I had it, I felt on a high and part of something momentous and positive. Only two weeks ago, we weren’t sure any of us would get it when the AstraZeneca vaccine was cancelled.”
If the successful rollout so far shows how things can be done at a public tertiary hospital, Price feels that the rest of the country can surely follow suit and everyone can be vaccinated.
“13 March marks a year since the Chevrah Kadisha closed the doors to its facilities,” she says. “I would love to open them again, but that can happen only when it’s safe. It’s still some way off, but this is possibly the beginning of a positive change.”
After some initial scepticism, GP Dr Daniel Israel says his vaccination this week offered some much-needed light at the end of a long tunnel.
“There was some concern about GPs because they don’t fit into either public or private healthcare systems,” he says. “They’re on the frontline, so it’s important they get their shots, too.
“I had the attitude that I would believe it only when I saw the needle in my arm. When I saw all the incredible work being done by volunteers at Bara, however, I was reminded of the election in 1994 and felt that people were coming together and uniting for a common, important goal. People pulled together and made it happen.”
Doctors being vaccinated is a beacon of light, Israel says. “Time will tell if the vaccine is fully effective, but it’s a wonderful thing, and I feel a little safer.”
Dr Gilad Mensky, who works in intensive-care at Baragwanath Hospital, paid tribute to the efforts of the hospital and all volunteers involved. He was vaccinated last week.
“Bara has done an outstanding job,” he says. “You really felt safe. Heads of department and senior doctors were on the floor ushering people and helping them. You felt the commitment and the enthusiasm.
“We’ve all gone through an emotional derailment, and it was nice to get some upliftment at last. A vaccine isn’t a right but a privilege, and I’m honoured to have received it.”
Says Meyberg, “We will still wear our masks and maintain protocols as we wait for herd immunity as more people get vaccinated. People need to understand that more vaccines are on the way, and that everyone will get it. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, and we are seeing the results.”
Pretoria doctor one of the first to be vaccinated
Around the same time that President Cyril Ramaphosa got his COVID-19 vaccination in Cape Town on Wednesday, 17 February 2021, an unassuming Jewish doctor was one of the very first healthcare workers to receive the jab, and possibly the very first Jewish doctor in the country to do so.
“At last! I was very anxious to get it,” Dr Darren Joseph told the SA Jewish Report. He is a special physician in the department of internal medicine at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, and is also a pulmonology fellow.
Joseph has been at the frontline of the COVID-19 war, and has lost colleagues, including a matron in his ward who passed away from COVID-19 this week. He also assisted the Jaffa Jewish Aged Home during its COVID-19 outbreak.
The first 80 000 Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines arrived in South Africa on 17 February, but Joseph never expected to get his dose so soon.
“It was quite a surprise. We knew the hospital was preparing to begin vaccination, but today it asked for a few volunteers to take part in a ‘trial run’, and I was third in line. It’s exactly like any other vaccination, it’s not painful. It was a very pleasant experience, and everyone cheered!”
Other healthcare workers can’t wait for their turn. “We are thrilled. We have the champagne ready!” says Johannesburg general practitioner (GP) Dr Sheri Fanaroff, who has a preliminary slot booked for her COVID-19 vaccination at 15:00 this Sunday, 21 February.
GPs have been able to book preliminary time slots to have the injection at government hospitals, but not all healthcare workers have been able to do so yet. The GPs will also have to wait for confirmation of their appointments, but if all goes to plan, Fanaroff will also be vaccinated at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in a few days’ time.
“I don’t know many doctors who have turned it down. We are happy that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is only one dose, and the studies look encouraging,” she says. “It will allay a lot of anxiety about the chance of severe illness and hospitalisation. But we will still be wearing masks and taking precautions, as will anyone who gets vaccinated, until the country is able to reach herd immunity.”
Dr Mark Kadish, a GP in Johannesburg, looked back at how far we have come and what this moment means. “At the end of 2020, we were faced with a second wave of COVID-19. As doctors, we were overwhelmed and struggled to maintain our bearings. We are exhausted physically and emotionally, as we find ourselves in yet another whole new world. In addition, there is a pandemic of mental-health issues related to COVID-19.
“The broader picture encompasses our support staff, who themselves are swamped and exhausted,” he continues. “As I contemplate receiving the vaccine, I have a great sense of relief, but at the same time, I have a sense of guilt as it’s essential for the elderly, immune-comprised, support staff, and the broader community to be vaccinated.”
Johannesburg GP Dr Daniel Israel is also waiting for confirmation of his preliminary slot on Sunday. “It’s all happening, and it feels good. At the end of the day, there’s still some uncertainty as this round of vaccines is happening in the framework of a trial. But we know it’s safe, and I feel reassured that the Johnson & Johnson results show that it protects against serious disease, especially because we are exposed to COVID-19 every day.”
Dr Orit Laskov and Dr Sol Lison, both GPs in Cape Town, have preliminary slots booked for Sunday at Groote Schuur Hospital. “The idea of being vaccinated makes me feel really excited and optimistic. It feels like a light at the end of the tunnel but not ‘the’ light, as we aren’t out of the woods yet,” says Laskov. “It will help me feel slightly less anxious about treating positive patients. I have confidence in the government’s response to this. It’s moving in the right direction.”
Says Lison, who is in his 70s, “I have been terrified of COVID-19 because of my co-morbidities, so I’m prepared to have the vaccine and see how I go. It has been quite a battle to try and get by. I will still wear a mask and take other precautions, but it’s good to know that the vaccine prevents severe disease.”
Dr Evan Shoul, an infectious disease specialist at Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg who works in a COVID-19 ward, hasn’t yet been able to book a slot, but says, “It’s really exciting and will change things quite radically for us. We are all absolutely thrilled at the prospect of getting the vaccine. Lots of medical staff have been exposed to a year of traumatic experiences, so it’s wonderful to have something promising in our midst.”
For Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, it’s a big moment. “I feel positive about the vaccine rollout now that the first batch of vaccines has arrived for healthcare workers. They have worked exceedingly hard under tremendous pressure, and I’m delighted that they will now be afforded the means of protecting themselves with a very safe and effective vaccine,” he says.
“This is the first rung of a very challenging ladder. It will certainly tax our healthcare resources to the maximum to vaccinate and achieve the goal of reaching the desired level for herd immunity. Yes, there will undoubtedly be hitches along the way, but I’m quietly confident that the goal will be reached, hopefully by early next year. I feel we owe the health minister our gratitude for his extraordinary hard work and the devotion he has shown in securing vaccines for the country.”
Professor Efraim Kramer says that as a frontline healthcare worker in an emergency department, he registered within hours of the electronic vaccinating system going live.
“I’m 67, have hypertension, and therefore have always been at high risk. During the first wave, 12 out of 14 of the doctors in our department contracted COVID-19, and five have contracted it during the second wave thus far. Receiving the vaccine would potentially take me out of the severe/fatal COVID-19 risk category. I don’t have a date or time, but my hospital, Thelle Mogoerane Regional Hospital, is the designated COVID-19 vaccine administration centre for the south eastern region, and I have no doubt that’s where I will get my jab with the rest of my medical team. How do I feel? Like a little boy waiting for a big present that’s coming soon … counting how many sleeps.”
Arsonists destroy family’s Mpumalanga bush hotel
When a group of marauding arsonists torched and destroyed a luxurious Mpumalanga game lodge recently, it not only devasted one Johannesburg family but affected the lives and livelihoods of many in neighbouring villages.
The Seligman family of Johannesburg won’t be spending Passover at their beloved Bongani Mountain Lodge in Mpumalanga this year like they often do, after a gang of thugs set fire to the hotel they share and partly own, razing it almost to the ground.
The beautiful, and tranquil lodge, situated in the 8 000ha Mthethomusha Game Reserve that borders the Kruger National Park, is a burnt-out shell. The hotel is now out of business. Loyal hotel employees risk losing their jobs and countless local community businesses have been affected, from fresh produce suppliers to locally-sourced building contractors to laundry and security vendors.
Members of a local gang went on a rampage on Sunday, 31 January, destroying the 40-room hotel. The lodge was one of the late Nelson Mandela’s favourite retreats. He even had a special suite named after him following one of his visits.
Manty Seligman, one of five partners of the lodge, told the SA Jewish Report he was at home that Sunday afternoon when he received a telephone call from his lodge manager, Johan Meintjies, telling him that the lodge was under attack.
Hundreds of kilometres away from the scene, a frantic Seligman instructed his staff to vacate the premises for their own safety while he attempted to call for help.
“Fortunately, a group of guests had departed earlier in the day. I then called everyone including the police, the riot squad, and local community members,” he said.
Sadly, reinforcements didn’t arrive in time to assist the police, and the gang was able to “do what it liked”.
The details are sketchy, but it’s rumoured that the incident was sparked by the shooting of a suspected poacher whose body was found in nearby Mpakeni Village.
Members of the community angrily pointed fingers at the local Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency anti-poaching unit, which resulted in an alleged act of retaliation. The gang first attacked the barracks just outside the lodge which housed the Mpumalanga security rangers. The following day, they returned around noon making their way to the lodge.
Police spokesman Brigadier Leonard Hlathi told the SA Jewish Report this week that three suspects aged between 28 and 37 had appeared before the Kanyamazane Magistrates Court in Mbombela on Tuesday on charges of arson, possession of stolen goods, and other crimes.
He said that before the attack, a group in a white SUV barricaded the road leading to the lodge using rubble including stones and branches of trees, so it was difficult to get there.
“While police were clearing the road, people among the group proceeded to the lodge where they are reported to have broken several doors and helped themselves to liquor as well as other items belonging to the lodge. They also damaged some property, torching some of the rooms and other infrastructure before fleeing the scene with the stolen items, leaving behind a trail of costly damage. Employees at the lodge reportedly had to run for safety as they witnessed the horrific event unfolding in front of their eyes.”
While investigations continue, the shareholders are picking up the pieces after this “senseless attack”.
“Everything that wasn’t destroyed was looted, there’s nothing left,” said Seligman, “Only 18 years of wonderful memories that we have shared with family and friends at the lodge. I feel sad and disappointed.
“It’s a sorrowful indictment of our society. Sadly, this incident will have a long-term impact on the local community. The jobs of 80 employees, all bread winners, are now in jeopardy.”
He said he hoped this “needless tragedy” would result in the government moving to protect national assets effectively and to help uplift communities who are integral to the growth and sustainability of these assets. “Communities need to benefit from our heritage. We need to ensure that this type of criminality doesn’t happen again elsewhere.” If that were to happen, at least something positive would come out of this.
He said the lodge has a rich cultural history, with 250 recorded San rock art paintings.
The surrounding local community has expanded in recent years, as has unemployment and poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked further economic havoc in the area.
In recent months, Seligman said there had been a “huge upswing” in poaching. He had on several occasions warned local authorities of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency about concerns about safety and security. Last Sunday, a week after the incident, police discovered nine carcasses of four different animal species on the reserve, believed to be the work of poachers, according to police.
The family and other shareholders were involved in numerous outreach projects aimed at the upliftment of surrounding communities.
Seligman said these included education drives, and sponsorship of the local annual sports tournament, an initiative by 702 Talk Radio host John Perlman called Dreamfields. During the lockdown, the lodge’s staff distributed food parcels and continued to distribute sanitary pads.
“It’s heartbreaking. A lot of people have been displaced and have lost everything. No one is a winner here,” said Brenda Seligman.
The family spent many Shabbos meals at the lodge as well as special occasions like Manty’s 50th birthday party.
Police investigations continue.
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