New reality for community as pandemic takes hold

  • CommunalLeaders
A birthday party celebrated more than 12 000 kilometres away in the United States brought the dreaded COVID-19 virus right into the living room of the South African Jewish community, rocking it to its core.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Mar 19, 2020

The virus had already announced its arrival on our shores on Thursday, 5 March, in Kwa-Zulu Natal – the same day an ex-South African and former King David Linksfield alumni celebrated her 40th birthday in Westport, Connecticut, in the US.

Little did she know that the novel virus – which has literally brought the world to its knees – was lurking amongst her 40-odd guests as they danced with joy.

Tight-knit friends and family from South Africa partied alongside ex-South Africans from various parts of America. The party vibes ended abruptly when one of the guests touched down at OR Tambo International Airport a few days later feeling “a little off” knowing “in the back of his mind” he could possibly have contracted COVID-19.

“After advice from my doctor, my wife Elana and I decided to go straight home from the airport where I placed myself in quarantine,” said Gary Sweidan of Johannesburg.

As the SA Jewish Report was put to bed last Wednesday night, Sweidan – who has still not been able to give his young children a welcome-home hug – announced via WhatsApp that he had tested positive, thereby becoming the first member of the community to do so. He is being quarantined separately from his wife and children, who are also in isolation.

The community of Westport was thrown into chaos as it was revealed in local newspaper reports that he had tested positive, and that a further 14 party goers had possibly contracted the virus.

One of the ex-South African Americans at the party posted the following on Twitter on 14 March: “Since last Sunday, I’ve been locked in my study with a dry cough/fever/headache. In spite of trying [to get a test] since Monday, I was tested on Friday – extended family had some symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. It hasn’t been a good week, but it’s given me time to think.”

Five South Africans from the party tested positive. All are in quarantine and recovering well, if not fully recovered.

One of them who wished to remain anonymous told the SA Jewish Report, “This thing is real. It’s super contagious. This is about a virus, and not about who spreads it.

“If you think you may have it, go into major precaution mode, and become quite obsessive. It’s not Ebola, so don’t panic. If you are fit and healthy, it’s not as bad as the annual winter cold. But it spreads.”

According to Zev Krengel of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), at least 300 members of the community including parents and their children have placed themselves in quarantine for a number of reasons including having come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. Many have been abroad, and have chosen to self-isolate following strict travel guidelines.

No sooner had the news ripped through the community than the miniscule virus continued to make its presence felt in other parts of the country, all in unrelated incidents.

In less than a week. the very best and worst sides of the community reared its head.

When news that one of the partygoers from America had attended a simcha (celebration) in Johannesburg last Wednesday night – before travel protocols and international-health guidelines were in place – she was lambasted and harassed on social media for doing so.

A frightened community was quick to blame, shame, and stigmatise all possible victims of the disease in a bid to find a scapegoat.

This initial ugliness prompted communal leaders – who had already sprung into pandemic-preparedness mode – to a call on the community to unite, and act with kindness.

Krengel urged people to help each other during this stressful time.

“Don’t scapegoat or blame anyone. We are here to help and preserve not only the South African Jewish community, but greater society. We will be judged in the future by how we as a society, as a people, and as South African Jewry look after each other. This can be our finest hour if we work together and stay united, or it will be our darkest hour if we turn on each other and don’t help one other.”

He said that in a remarkable display of commitment and co-operation, all communal and civic structures had come together to fight the spread of the disease.

It took less than 48 hours to gather the entire communal leadership including Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, all communal structures, community organisations, and experts in the field of infectious diseases, to discuss the way forward.

“We’ve never worked this closely together on anything before,” Krengel said. “Sure, there were some who didn’t behave nicely by sending vicious voice notes and WhatsApp messages to possible victims, but those responsible have been told that this behaviour isn’t acceptable, and doesn’t help,” he said.

“Overall, we’ve never seen this level of unity in our community before. This could be our finest hour yet.”

Communal organisations are being advised by experts like Professor Barry Schoub, the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare, with guidelines being updated daily.

“While there has been a dark side, and some have been unfairly accused of acting selfishly or have been stigmatised, the majority of the community has been unbelievably supportive,” said one victim who also preferred to remain anonymous.

COVID-19 is a fast-moving global story which has left the community in a bizarre state of limbo while the country slowly grinds to a halt.

While the pandemic continues to spread beyond anyone’s wildest imagination and South Africans continue to panic purchase at the shops, the words of Dr Hans Kluge of the World Health Organization ring true when he said this week, “There is quite simply a new reality.”

At the time of going to press, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Africa was 116.

  • Those who have tested positive for the virus and haven’t given permission for their names to be used are being kept confidential.

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