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The numbers reflect caring for our elderly

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Opinion News

Our community has felt the impact of COVID-19 hugely, what with 106 people having lost their lives to the coronavirus, and so many more becoming very ill with it.

And while there are many who literally didn’t even know they had it, there are those who, months later, are still feeling the consequences of this horrible virus.

The number, 106, may seem like just a number and not especially significant. However, we need to remember that each one of those 106 people was a person with a family, perhaps children and grandchildren, and friends who lost someone they loved dearly. Each one is a massive loss.

Each one had a significant life, and a phenomenal story to tell. Each one was loved and loved many. Some had long wonderful lives, while others may have had tough existences with much sadness. And while we now know that the average age of Jewish people in South Africa who have died was 82.7, there were many who were still in their prime with so much to live for.

What for me is very obvious about this high number and the average age of those who have died is that we look after our elderly. I say this because, if that’s the average age, there must be a great deal of people much older than that who were healthy before this pandemic. It’s a testament to how well we care for our elderly in our community. This explains the high death rate, rather than anything else. The price we have paid for looking after our elderly with kid gloves is a really high death rate during this pandemic.

So, yes, the number is high, and yes, it means these people have left us behind – and nothing can take that away – but it also means that we can really be grateful for how we treat our elderly. I believe that rather than self-flagellating, we should honour the people and organisations like the Chevrah Kadisha, among others, who go the extra mile in caring for our elderly.

It also speaks to something intrinsic in our community in how we honour our aged folk. I know so many people who, as their parents get older, do whatever it takes to give them the best years of their lives. Clearly this is why we have such a huge elderly community that is now so highly susceptible to COVID-19.

Every single one of those who died deserves to be honoured and remembered. And they will be, by those who love them, whether they are here or in other parts of the world.

This is a difficult time, and there have been too many deaths and too much illness. Most of those people who experienced loss at the hands of this virus weren’t able to be there for their loved ones in the end. In fact, their loved ones had mostly lonely deaths, and sitting shiva for them was equally lonely.

And, funerals have been sadder than ever because so few were able to attend.

Through this COVID-19 time, we have paid tribute to many doctors, paramedics, people who have fed the starving, and others who have shone and been noticed for the work they have done.

However, those who work for the Chev and deal with burials and funerals are never recognised for the work they do. They are truly unsung heroes, and do work that most of us can’t even contemplate doing. These people go unnoticed, but they do their jobs with such compassion, professionalism, dedication, and pride.

Those who work for the Chev’s burial services have been working through the night for our community. They don’t complain in spite of putting themselves at risk and – especially in July – under such immense pressure. In the past month, they sometimes had as many as eight funerals a day that they had to plan and make happen. All a family has to do is call them, and the rest is ‘miraculously’ done.

Going to a funeral over this time is sadder than ever because when someone gets a good send off when they die, there’s a sense of the love and respect they inspired in their lives.

But now, COVID-19 funerals are so small, with so few there to say goodbye. In many of these cases, you can count on some of the closest relatives not being there because they tested positive. In some cases, they are sitting in their cars in the parking lot. So, during the funeral, the pressure is on the Chev to make it as pain-free and dignified as possible in spite of the size. And it does.

Going back to the number 106, I believe that because of our communal services, like Hatzolah, our doctors, and our hospitals, we have managed to save rather than lose more lives.

As the days go on, I hear more and more people being astonished that after being told that their loved one is unlikely to survive, they recover. This is clearly because over these past months, our medical and paramedic teams have learnt so much and are applying it to the best of their ability. They are saving many lives that they wouldn’t have been able to three to six months ago.

In this dark time, we have so much to be grateful for. I, for one, thank my lucky stars I was born into this community.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Panic never got us anywhere

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Isn’t it amazing how we can plan things to perfection and then, in one fell swoop, it all falls apart. And we had nothing whatsoever to do with it, and no recourse.

This is what happened over the past week. We all had our holidays planned to a tee. We had end-of-year parties organised. Magnificent weddings and Barmitzvahs were on the cards. We had youth movement camps confirmed – trommels packed and ready. And even Rage, something many of us were worried about, was going ahead. So many things to look forward to.

And then, Omicron reared its ugly head, and our scientists told the world about it. So, the world turned on South Africa, and the rest is history. Though the latter is true, we cannot dispute the ever-worrying fact of COVID-19 numbers increasing very quickly.

Never before has the saying, “Man makes plans and G-d laughs” been so evidently true. However, I don’t believe He is laughing when observant Jews are forced by Israel to fly home on Shabbos because the regulations changed while they were on their way there. Some of these people were doing a mitzvah in going to Israel to support the family of South African Eli Kay, who was murdered in a terrorist attack the week before.

I also don’t believe that anyone is laughing when we are cut off from Israel – or the world.

I love Israel but as I have said so many times, it’s not perfect. But for the Jewish State to force Jewish people – observant or not – to fly on Shabbos in unacceptable. If there is one country that should know the implications of that for those people, it’s Israel.

I have to say, I’m proud of our rabbinic leadership for standing up to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and vocalising their anger. I’m also pleased to see our chief rabbi calling the Israeli government to task for preventing Jews from going to Israel at any point.

This group wasn’t the only one whose international travel plans were shredded. In fact, the numbers of people who have been left in the lurch are only starting to surface. People were going for the birth of grandchildren, going to get married, going or coming for once-in-a-lifetime events, and making a long-awaited visit to their elderly parents, possibly for the last time.

All these plans have been scuppered. I guess if we knew that there was a fact-based reason – that we would contaminate or kill people with the virus – perhaps I can understand. But, for the most part, it was a knee-jerk reaction against South Africa and this continent.

However, though our anger and frustration can be taken out on governments around the world, the truth is that it might be misplaced. You see, at the end of the day, this is about this dreaded coronavirus that keeps mutating and coming back to hit us again and again.

The panic that was spread by overseas governments in shutting us off was, exactly that, panic. There was at the time no data-based information behind it except that it was a new, unusual variant.

At this point in time, we know that the numbers in Gauteng and the Western Cape are going up rapidly, but it hasn’t yet been seen in hospitals. Perhaps that will follow, or perhaps not. We don’t know.

What I’m hoping to hear is that our vaccines will keep us healthy – or limit the impact of the virus on us. And I believe that to be the case. So far, the people I know who have contracted COVID-19 recently and were vaccinated have suffered what appears to be much like flu.

I believe that if that’s the case, we can learn to live with this virus, as President Cyril Ramaphosa said. But I’m not a scientist, nor can I see into the future.

What I do know is that panic never got us anywhere except into trouble. It’s so much wiser to take the precautions we need to safeguard ourselves within reason.

Should you be cancelling your holiday? Well, are you going to be surrounded by unmasked and potentially COVID-19-positive people all day? If so, perhaps your holiday plans aren’t so smart. But if you’re going to hang out in your small bubble of people, spending most of your time outdoors, sanitising, washing hands regularly, wearing masks, and all the other protocols, I don’t believe that you should cancel. I believe we cannot cancel our lives.

Our economy needs you to go on holiday and, after this year, so do we all.

We have to live with caution, but we still have to live. The best way to do this is to follow the protocols and vaccinate. Vaccination – as I have said so many times – has to be the key to finding a balanced way of living with protocols, but still living.

We dare not ignore the numbers rising, and we have to take every precaution within reason. Perhaps I’ll regret saying this, but there are two types of health involved in this pandemic. They are physical and mental health. Our mental health also needs to be nurtured, as is clear in the story on page 5.

And to be cut off from other people again could have devastating effects. Let’s use our G-d-given sechel and not deny the existence of this virus. Let’s not blame others, let’s follow protocols, and within those parameters, go ahead with plans for our holidays.

Chag sameach for the rest of Chanukah! Here’s hoping for another Chanukah miracle!

Shabbat Shalom!

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OP-EDS

Omicron: hoping for a storm in a teacup

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An avalanche of panic calls, contact questions, and quarantine-bound disappointed families was certainly not what I expected in the last week of November. I have, once again, awoken this morning to a stream of positive COVID-19 test results.

Every day this week has been similar. This after a month of not a single COVID-19-positive result detected through my practice.

COVID-19 has been described as a pandemic of disease, economic challenge, and patient anxiety, and it’s always that anxiety that we, family medical practitioners, have grappled with at the start of a new wave.

This community anxiety is applaudable because it reflects the deep respect that this virus has gained. The trauma our community has experienced over the past 22 months has scarred us. It’s this deep respect that, in fact, propels our community to contain COVID-19 outbreaks and directly act to save lives now.

However, anxiety needs to be transformed into evidence-driven knowledge to be productive. Knowledge empowers patients to make informed choices about socialising, travelling, and even the symptoms to look out for in their bid to keep safe and still live “normally” during a COVID-19 surge.

Imparting this knowledge is the most time-consuming occupation for my GP colleagues and myself at the moment. We have, once again, invested deeply in responding to every question, sharing sound information, and finding innovative ways to educate our community appropriately.

The mental fatigue from the formidable task of caring virtually for dozens of COVID-19-positive patients is balanced by the sense of worth in making a dent in this pandemic.

I recognise that as much as long workdays and being a distracted father may not be the best input I could give my family now, these efforts may truly assist a large number of other families to get through this unexpected twist at the end of this challenging year. Each of the GPs in our community has expressed similar sentiments.

The COVID-19 sky isn’t so dark this time round. We’re familiar with managing COVID-19 at home. I think back to June 2020 with its grocery sterilisations, runs on hydroxychloroquine, debates about whether masks actually matter, and even COVID-19-toe queries, and realise how far we’ve come.

We now know what evidence-based vitamin regimens to give patients early on in the disease. We know how to track their vital metrics at home. We know what signs of deterioration to look out for, and we have a good idea how to prevent the spread of infection.

The Omicron finding has been trying. We are now dealing with an “extra-novel” coronavirus. Virologists have warned that with more than 50 new mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein by which the virus enters the human cell, we can predict serious disease and a resultant escalation in hospitalisations and death.

The thought of once again conducting midnight rushes of hypoxic patients to hospital, running daily blood tests on serious patients at home, and counselling patients after regrettable losses is overwhelming.

However, our experience this week on the ground has been the saving grace so far. Our community is largely vaccinated, unlike the majority of South Africans who unfortunately aren’t.

Amidst all the speculation as to whether vaccines work against the Omicron strain, we are seeing vaccinated patients easily contracting COVID-19, even if they have had a previous infection in the past three months.

Thankfully, though, they aren’t becoming particularly ill.

Although routine COVID-19-positive swabs aren’t undergoing genomic sequencing to establish whether or not they are the Omicron strain, the massive uptick in cases with a concomitant community finding of a new variant suggests they are.

The juxtaposition of these facts implies that either Omicron is, in fact, mild, or that vaccines are, indeed, protective. It’s too early to predict that this surge of Omicron will be mild, but if you are a clinical optimist, the prospects are looking good.

I have experienced a flood of questions this week requiring a recap of the basic facts.

* Exposure to a COVID-19-positive individual still requires a 10-day quarantine. A negative test at five days doesn’t shorten that time;

* Exposure is defined as contact within two metres. Masks are protective, but in closed environments, masks don’t obviate the need to quarantine unless the exposure is both outdoors and distanced;

* There are no new novel treatments for early COVID-19 infection. Vitamins remain the mainstay of early treatment, and steroids are largely contraindicated in the first week. (Regeneron, molnupiravir, and ritonavir are all new effective treatments for early COVID-19, but aren’t yet available in South Africa.);

* Isolation for infected patients remains 10 days;

* Secondary contacts don’t need to quarantine; and

* Vaccinated individuals who are exposed to positive patients need to quarantine as well.

I believe the next two weeks will be the most telling time for our community in this pandemic thus far. We have all worked tirelessly to get ourselves vaccinated, and we are desperate to continue our former lifestyles, even alongside COVID-19.

I’m filled with optimism, and hope that for those of us who have been vaccinated, the worst of this new strain of COVID-19 will be a disruption of our holiday and perhaps the experience of a contagious flu upon some of us.

However, until we know more, and while so many of the South African population is unvaccinated, it’s vital that we pull up our masks, socialise safely, and test appropriately over this peak.

I look forward to the next relaxation of these measures, a population greater vaccinated, and a less daunting situation next year.

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OP-EDS

After all the bad news, the economic outlook is still positive

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The legendary New York Yankees’ catcher, Yogi Berra, renowned for his paradoxical axioms, was attributed as saying, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Just as infections and hospitalisations were falling and we were beginning to delight in the pleasures of our former lives, along comes news of a new COVID-19 variant that has put an abrupt halt to our holiday plans.

At this point very little is known about Omicron – the name given to this new mutation. Apparently, it’s fast spreading, but other than that, we don’t know whether it’s dangerous and if our vaccines are sufficiently effective to fight it off. And as we have witnessed in the past, no one is hanging around to wait for the answers. While countries have slammed shut the doors to travellers from South Africa, in financial markets some investors, fearing a resumption of harsh social and economic measures to contain the spread of this new variant, have abandoned equity and commodity markets, seeking safety in the US dollar and US government bonds.

The past two years have been difficult for us in many respects, from worrying about our physical and mental health to being concerned about our relationships, our jobs, our businesses, and our families. From the outset, medical experts warned that it would take years of effort before the virus was tamed and relegated to nothing more than a commonplace flu. The good news, though, is that while things still seem bad, they’re getting a little less bad each day.

The pandemic caught the world off guard. Healthcare systems were inadequately equipped and organised to handle the load of wide-scale hospitalisations, COVID-19 testing, and vaccine rollouts. It could have proved to be a moment for global cooperation but, instead, each country acted on its own, protecting its borders and looking to develop its own remedies. Developed countries did little to safeguard less developed countries or share vaccines with them. Yet again, the latest outbreak demonstrates that until the whole world is vaccinated, no one is safe.

In response to these failings, vast amounts of money are being invested in global healthcare. Several new vaccines and drugs to treat chronic diseases will be released next year. Innovative genetic therapies – aimed at curing diseases by modifying or removing human genetic information – are finding their way to market, together with pioneering robotic surgical devices and groundbreaking diagnostic tools.

While domestic politics uncaringly controlled how countries chose to fight the pandemic, encouragingly, central bankers and governments took appropriate action to address the negative impact of an economic shutdown, pumping liquidity into the market, slashing interest rates and providing financial support to businesses and individuals. Also, recognising that the recent crisis was a health crisis and not a financial one, the world economy is favourably positioned to work its way back to prosperity. Corporate earnings are above their pre-pandemic levels and individuals, flush with savings hoarded during lockdown, are eager to splurge.

The pandemic has changed our behavioural patterns, and even when we return to normality, the way we go about our lives, jobs, and relationships will never be the same. The pandemic brought forward the future. It accelerated our use of technology, from video conferencing to online shopping. It fast-tracked our adoption of technology to levels that had not been expected for years. In a matter of a few weeks, we were propelled five years forward. Yet more than anything, the pandemic burned our consciousness about the world in which we live, stirring us to build a new order rather than trying to return to or repair yesterday’s ways.

You can sense this in political calls for wealth redistribution and environmental action, and in society’s push to embrace gender and race equality at home, in schools, and in the workplace. Governments, eager to achieve net-zero carbon transition, are fast introducing legislation to penalise consumers and businesses that breach accepted pollution and emission standards. The path to clean air has become one of the most significant investment trends at present, opening appealing opportunities in renewable energy and carbon reduction solutions.

The drive to fight climate change has engulfed the motor industry that’s now riding a wave of exciting electric car strategies. Mainstream manufacturers cannot abandon petrol and diesel production altogether, but almost all are targeting all-electric output by 2030.

Electrification is not only the dominion of the motor firms but a big theme for the producers of semi-conductors and batteries too. It’s estimated that between $2 500 (R40 354) and $3 000 (R48 425) worth of computer chips will be embedded in each new-generation motor vehicle, while the challenge facing the battery industry is to reduce the size and weight of batteries and, at the same time, double its output and power. The need to secure metals essential for the manufacturing of batteries is a further demand. Apparently, a passenger vehicle battery requires 20kg of nickel, 20kg of cobalt, and 60kg of lithium compounds.

Besides possibilities arising out of the need to control our environment, the transition to automate business processes, boost efficiencies, and improve the quality of strategic decision-making will continue to spur investment spend. Disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, the use of big data, cyber security, and the rollout of 5G will remain dominant themes for at least the next decade. The downside to these enabling technologies is that with the number of connected devices growing rapidly, the hazard of online attacks has increased significantly.

Despite the odd setback, conditions in the world economy are improving. The success of the vaccine rollout backed by huge stimulus has enabled economies to open up. People are returning to work, socialising, spending, and getting their lives back. The erratic nature of the recovery has caused imbalances that will need to work their way through the system. These imbalances have manifested themselves in higher prices, especially in energy and labour, and until these are ironed out, interest rates will remain lower for longer. The economy that emerges from the pandemic will not be like the one we left behind, but that opens the way for attractive investment opportunities. The outlook for 2022 and beyond is encouraging.

  • David Shapiro is a veteran stockbroker, market commentator, and deputy chairman at Sasfin Securities.

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