God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensées of a Catholic priest

Travel woes

Trying to travel in the times of Covid-19 becomes more and more a nightmare, especially when you come from a so called high-incidence area like South Africa – where the incidence of currently 11.9 and a recovery rate of over 95% constantly is obviously a major threat to European countries dealing with incident rates average between 100 and 300. It is an interesting experience to be a pariah of the world, only because South Africa did something right – which is seldom enough in our days – namely sequencing the existing virus genomes and making the world aware of a mutation which popped up in other countries as well and threatens e.g. with its 1% occurrence in Germany obviously this country in its core.

Trying to reach Europe from Cape Town is becoming a nightmare: airlines stop flying and entry is practically not allowed for those coming from the danger zone of open restaurants, hotels, shops and with level 1 lockdown almost normal life adhering to hygiene, masks in public and distance keeping.

But seriously:

The Robert-Koch-Institute in Germany keeps South Africa on all danger lists possible since last year – and till now only a court in Baden-Württemberg has dared to state, that this institute has not provided any valid reason for asking local governments in Germany to enforce extended quarantine for people returning from South Africa.

Those daring to fly to South Africa suddenly realise how politics can paint a picture of a country which has nothing to do with reality. Politics, which destroys without any visible regret a very important sector of South Africa’s economy, namely tourism, and pushes the country even deeper into trouble on many levels.

Fear and trying to be a Nanny state dictates currently German politics – add to it the urge to always have a perfect solution for a problem and inventing rules for it, then you have the perfect mix for disaster looming. Listening to those in charge you get the impression that they really think they can beat a pandemic. You simply can’t do this -you have to live with it – and you have to find ways to counter it in a way which balances the freedom of people and the needs of a healthy democracy with the threat posed by the virus.

Looking at the vaccine drives and the distribution of vaccines in the world, there is the other assumption for which Europe is falling: vaccinating their own people first will help. The pandemic is only under control if the virus is kept at bay all over the world at the same time. There is no first winner – even trying to curb travel will not lead to the final goal of co-existing with the virus on a level not really being a threat to humans.

Pandemics are a serious threat for human mankind and the systems, humans are working within; anxiety and fear are definitely not the best advisors nor is it to look only at virology for answers. Social sciences, the psychological impact as well as the economic impact are as important to balance and listen to. Time to reconsider as well as to reflect what governments are obliged to do and where the individual citizen remains in charge of his or her own destiny. Our highly complex societies and their interactions need different answers as we are currently able to give.
And like it or not:
Despite the failure regarding the vaccine story and the attempts to abuse the pandemic for political gains and transformation, for the time being South Africa handles the pandemic better than Europe.

Filed under: Africa, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fool’s Day – on a serious note…

Today, 1st of April is “Fool’s Day” – a day known to be littered by the attempt to trick somebody in believing something which is factually wrong – a hoax so to speak. So people are fooled in what they see or hear. And maybe this year there are reasons for reflecting more seriously on the meaning of this day:

Looking at the world of today – I can only say that it seems Fool’s Day is a permanence in our days – certainly for different reasons in different areas but nevertheless a continuum of notice. Some examples of note:

Starting in South Africa: Listening to the ANC NEC decision about Ace Magashule – South Africans are certainly taken for a ride looking at the long time, a political Mafioso and an accused corrupt politician remained and now remains in power for the next 30 days – the damage this man and his fraction has done is substantial and no ordinary citizen would be afforded the same kindness.

Staying by kindness and looking at the Zondo Commission and former President Jacob Zuma – again no ordinary citizen would be afforded to ignore and even attack a legal entity continuously and avoid consequences for so long; let alone justice for bringing South Africa to the knees in his time on the helmet of the state. But obviously it is difficult for a party which has lived beyond the expiry date in the current shape to insist that the law takes it course.

Vaccines are another topic were not only but also South Africa has a share in a prolonged Fool’s Day. Recall the President and the Minister of Health with all tamm-tamm and glory inspecting the arriving more than a million vaccines which consequently were not good enough? Mix this with a small study making headlines in South Africa from an academic, who changed stance within weeks when it was too late and politics had decided to throw away the lifeline for people in the third wave, and you got a good take on a Fools Day episode.

And then a President and Minister of Health suddenly turned into frontline health care worker to get the jab and jumping queue in a phase III trial of J&J now baptised phase one roll-out?

Meanwhile, South Africa is on the back burner still waiting to see the advent of a roll-out while the chair of the MAC for vaccines tries desperately to justify the not justifiable, arguing in an opinion piece in a way contradicting himself.

But staying with Covid-19 and the fall-out: Europe and my home country Germany also keeps Fool’s Day alive. Germany continues to ban South Africans to enter the country and those Germans who make it from South Africa must go in prolonged quarantine – an incidence rate of 12.9 is more dangerous than one of hundred and more – and a mutant, which is only discovered in South Africa but present also in other countries is taken as a reason for the unreasonable political decision. Only one High Court in the province of Baden -Württemberg has meanwhile ruled that this does not make sense. But this non-sense continues to keep South Africans from travelling to almost all European countries and even further up to the Seychelles. There everybody is welcome now for holidays except those coming from South Africa.

But even if you would be able to arrive in Germany – the confusion of what is allowed or not allowed in different parts of the country is mind-boggling – the forward and again backward decisions are beyond comprehension let alone common sense. With all appreciation of a difficult situation politicians find themselves in – what’s happening now is damage to democratic rule and the understanding, that a state is not the nanny for its citizens. Serious questions to be asked when this Fool’s Day time has come to an end.

In the USA – the four-year prolonged Fool’s Day has somehow come to an end – but judgement is still out how it changed the nation of the free or let’s say perceived free. Having said that, the last four years allowed other countries like Russia and China to explore this Day in many ways which harms life, democracy and the freedoms and civil rights, people have fought for and paid with blood in this world.

Lastly looking at my own church: the answer of the Vatican when it comes to blessings of same-sex partnerships also feels for many as a Fools Day joke with a very bitter taste. And the public reaction especially in Germany shows that people are not able and willing to accept this any further. And yes, even the handling of child abuse in the Catholic Church as seen in Cologne had and has the feeling that people were taken for a ride and those who had endured abuse were not really taken serious enough as this topic would require.

Reflecting on all those issues in the context of Fool’s Day maybe requires more than ever what we celebrate on Sunday in my church: Easter – salvation – experiencing a touch of freedom from all those things which don’t take us serious – leading us into a new chapter where we tackle in respect before each other the challenges of life and keeping – or returning Fools Day as a one-day occurrence of light-hearted jokes making us laugh and not cry.

And as Catholics there is a German tradition on Easter: During the sermon on Easter Sunday, the priest has to tell a joke and make the people laugh – they call it the Easter laughter….

Filed under: Politics and Society, Reflection, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,

A window of opportunity

We all welcomed the relief of bringing back South Africa from Covid-19 alert level 3 to 1 in the last days. But having said this it is also noticeable that more and more voices are raising concern about the possibility of a 3rd wave as early as the second half of May, when winter is knocking onto the door – especially the Western Cape with cold temperatures and rain will be exposed to more indoor activities raising the bar.

So the next 8 weeks are a window of opportunity to get things right and especially to see to our tools available preventing another peak of death and hospitalization figures. Vaccinations are new in our tool box – but the way they were introduced have clouded for many the willingness to receive them. Instead of using 1.5 million jabs already in the country of a clearly death and hospitalization avoiding vaccine the countries leaders decided to give away 1.5 million protection and opting for a trial run with another vaccination provider needing volunteers to conclude phase 3.

I got quite some flak for criticising Linda-Gail Bekker for wearing two heads as the co-principal of the J&J study and at the same time being part of the running of the country’s vaccine drive. In a tweet reply she assured me that there were no financial implications for her and that several ethic committees have given the green light for this conflict of interest to overcome. I have no reason to not believe her – but I am still of the opinion that this is not really the point:

Looking around and listening to various virologists there is a clear line: vaccinate with what you can get your hands on – the WHO has approved AstraZeneca also for the mutant discovered in South Africa – and I would expect from anybody running the show in this arena to stand up against any government decision to miss the opportunity vaccinating to at least avoid dead and hospitalisation in the 3rd wave. Vaccinate your health workers with the J&J trial as it most likely produces a higher protection rate, but there are millions of South Africans who are not in the health sector – they are working in schools and crèches, in retail, in hospitality, yearning for that extra protection they can get.

While many African countries started a vaccination drive – with AstraZeneca – South Africa stands lonely with a marginal vaccination trial programme having rejected what was already in the country. Judge for yourself whether this decision costing lives in the third wave was right. There will be many who are already dead when in the third and fourth quarter the promised vaccine drive starts in this country. To get a sense of where we are the vaccinations done by now:

And there is more: the writing is already very clearly on the walls: no vaccination no freedom of travel internationally; what this means for business travel you might be able to imagine. We are in the process of missing the boat and we all know, South Africa cannot afford it.

Lastly another question mark: The whole drama about AstraZeneca was triggered by a small – not even peer-to-peer reviewed study – and knowing how the battle is on between pharmaceutical companies to get their product on the market and to cash in – it is understandable that there remain questions how convenient this study was put into the public domain. The amount of studies being published for a greater audience without the filter of academic review and academic knowledge is a danger in itself.

As lives are in danger on different levels: health, economy, social we have to ask the hard questions and to scrutinize what is done and how it is done on the level of decision-making.

We have now a window of opportunity before the virus hits us anew in another wave – and we have to expect from government more than just warm words and promises…. Lives are at stake!

Filed under: Africa, Medical and Research, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,

The vaccine confusion

AstraZeneca vaccine stopped – so the headlines around the world when South Africa decided to re-think the use of the vaccine it bought for a higher price without checking the expiry date – and one could think this is a typical story – or another example of the incompetence of South Africa’s national government. That may be the case, but I guess, in this time and situation government bashing should not be first priority but to look a bit deeper into this headline creating event.

The first batch of vaccines in South Africa was designated to be used for the health worker at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic; and obviously the aim is to protect those doctors, nurses and health workers against the virus. It was known that the AstraZeneca vaccine was not a 100% protection, but a small and not peer-to-peer reviewed study, which in itself poses more questions than answers was cited as the reason to stop the vaccination drive before it started.
And here the first critical thought has to be mentioned:
This discussion is way above the heads of the general population. The South African government, in its drive to be as transparent as possible, decided to bring into the public a level of medical research discourse which created more confusion than it helped to motivate people to make an informed decision on wanting to be vaccinated. It also laid bare the underlying belief of many, that a vaccine is either the miracle cure or not helping at all.
In reality, we are far from understanding the virus and the potential of vaccinations in this case. Questions about how long the vaccine will work, what possible boosters are needed, how mutations will change the course of strategy and whether vaccinated people can still be infected or pass on the virus are questions in transition of answers. Combinations of vaccines would be another question which warrants an answer.

The advent of highly expert driven expert discussions in the public and political domain is creating more havoc and uncertainty then intended by those allowing for it. And looking through publications and mini studies and opinion pieces one can’t stop thinking that some so-called or self-identified experts have their own popularity as priority number one on their agenda. Also here social media are at parts more a curse than a blessing, when it comes to relay information which are factual correct and done in a way which enlighten ordinary people.

The additional problem in South Africa is that even those, who vote for the governing party not necessarily trust anybody in government, knowing what they know via the Zondo Commission. Too much lies, too much deception, to many people in charge just looking for their own advantage and having their own hidden agendas.

As it stands at the moment, no decision is taken what happens to the amount of expensive vaccines waiting in the cold storerooms of South Africa. It would be a pity if they would be given back or expire- as they still prevent severe illness and death for those being vaccinated with them.

Generally speaking we have to learn to appreciate what medical advances can do – and to understand that all are building blocks to prevent the pandemic from raging on – none is currently the golden bullet which stops the virus in the track. And there is something else to learn: that health experts should only cover parts of the political decision-making process in pandemic times for complex societies. There is more to balance and if one part is dominant, it will derail the process of taking with them the people governed.

Filed under: Africa, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,

Fatigue and the lack of the art to think long-term

I guess nobody wants to be in the shoes of those in political office when it comes to Covid-19. Even when the theoretical threat of a pandemic was known to academics and politicians alike, Corona visited without real warning – and the Chinese system to hide unpleasant truth did not help in being prepared. Italy paid the heaviest price at the beginning of the pandemic arriving in Europe, but meanwhile many more countries experience what it means if the implicitness of daily life is pulled away from societies.

Of course in the times of social media, we have millions of people who know it better – and whatever politicians say or do, it is wrong for quite a portion of society and pepped up by fake news, ideology and outright concious lying we have arrived in split societies all over the world: those who rebel against any sort of restrictions or even questioning the pure existence of the virus and others on the other margin of society who can’t live without their daily dose of sanitizers on everything which theoretically could bring danger into their homes.

There are also massive failures to be noticed; in my country of residence I could mention :
the ordering of vaccines by the South African government and its non-existing transparency in this regard is an example for failure to live up to the duty of those in charge; there are also noticeable behaviour patterns, which warrant criticism like the visible sheer lust for authoritarian rule as presented by some ministers and the inability of thinking with logic and consistency or deliver the needed services at all.

Globally we see fatigue when it comes to rules regarding restrictions – and the willingness to adhere to seemingly every day changing rules is clearly going down. Generally besides all complexity there is one notion which seems to be present in all countries and societies:
The lack of the art to think long-term.

It does not matter where you look, the four or five years election circles in most democracies have changed the mindset of those in charge – instead of long-term vision there are only short-term thinking having the next voting day in mind – even in non-democratic countries like China there is the tendency visible to act and react rather with short-term vision pacifying people on a certain level. Gone are the days when leaders had real visions bigger than life and certainly their political life-span. Contributing to this short circuit thinking is certainly also the instant “feedback” via social media; the phrase “shitstorm” has entered the realms of communication and decision-making, and it is often not to the benefit of society.

Looking at my country of birth Germany – the currently constant onslaught in headlines promising more lockdown, harder lockdown, longer lockdown as a permanent feature is contrarily to fostering compliance and adherence to rules. The very core of being human: closeness, touch and social interactions are on the list of forbidden fruits in pandemic times – and only measured action and perspective given in positive language will bring people to endure hardship in this regard on the long run. Pushing, threatening, confusing through changing messages will spill back – making up and pretending are the enemies of compliance and peaceful adherence.

A clear indication of the state of mind is the non-celebratory reaction of the advent of available vaccines: instead of celebrating science rightfully for working hard and in short time to bring a solution to the table, in most countries the mourning and questioning of facts and advances is mind-boggling. And it should give cause to serious reflection.

Filed under: General, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,

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