The past year has been difficult for everyone. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries have all been scaled back because of the pandemic. People have searched everywhere for hope. Then in December, the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States. Finally we could see light at the end of the tunnel and every day the light has grown stronger.
Unfortunately, people are always ready to take advantage of good news. Last year I wrote a blog called “COVID-19 Senior Scams: Yes It Can Get Lower,” outlining how seniors during the pandemic are more susceptible to scams. Currently, we are racing to vaccinate everyone, and seniors rightfully have been one of the first in line. While this is great news, vaccinations have created opportunities for scams. For example, scammers are approaching older Americans offering early access to the vaccine, requesting payment for access and claiming they can send the vaccine directly to their homes. Seniors should be aware that these “claims” and “offers” are signs of scams. Also, scams are being furthered through text messages, social media platforms, house visits and phone calls.
Over the past couple of months, government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have all issued warnings advising people of COVID-19 vaccine scams. On Feb. 19 the CDC released guidance called “What Older Adults Need to Know about COVID-19 Vaccines” that stated, “If anyone asks you to pay for access to vaccine, you can bet it’s a scam. Don’t share your personal or financial information if someone calls, texts or emails you promising access to the vaccine for an extra fee.”
In Maine, the state’s CDC reported people have been impersonating agency employees claiming to be contacting them about contact tracing or to double-check vaccine appointments to fraudulently request Social Security numbers. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine released a statement in January that scammers were trying to use the vaccine as an excuse to get access to people’s money, Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information.
“These scammers are ruthless and relentless, and everyone needs to have their guard up,” said U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank. “People here in Maine, particularly the elderly, are desperate to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and the con artists are exploiting that desperation to get access to their money and personal information.”
At B’nai B’rith, our training programs have provided information on scam awareness. For example, during the pandemic we relayed and explained government guidance from various federal agencies on scams associated with the vaccine, stimulus payments, contact tracing and testing. As a sponsor of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) senior housing across the country it’s important we communicate the most updated information to buildings for the betterment of residents.
Hopefully, sooner than later everyone can get back to spending time with family and friends. However, in the meantime let’s all be vigilant against people who are taking advantage of the pandemic, especially now with our country taking a turn for the better. Plus, it can never hurt to call your senior loved ones and remind them to be a little more aware of what’s going on.
A recent New York Times Sunday section asked readers to describe the year 2020 in one word. It is tempting to use some negative ones, but I would like to use that question and describe B’nai B’rith’s community service agenda in 2020. The word is PEOPLE.
There are four groups that are represented in this one-word description. The first group is the people who need assistance. They may be a vulnerable population – children, single parent families or seniors. They may be a living in a place that is experiencing something particularly difficult, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or a natural disaster that occurred in their community. The second group is the people who are dedicated volunteers who carry out the projects that B’nai B’rith brings to the first group. These volunteers involve others to join them in delivering what people need. This group often works with the third group of people. This third group runs agencies and other organizations that work in a community. They become B’nai B’rith’s partner with boots-on-the-ground and experts who can deal with the situation faced by the first group. And finally, the last group is the people who make it all possible. This group is comprised of the individuals who contribute the funds used to purchase tangible items or pay for the services that are provided to the first group. It is also what keeps the physical locations within B’nai B’rith’s structure staffed and running, and what makes all of this possible.
The B’nai B’rith Disaster and Emergency Fund is a perfect example of this process in action. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, needs were addressed by the people who can help them utilizing the funds to make it all possible. A great example is the distribution of COVID kits containing a cloth face mask and hand sanitizer. Three thousand kits are being distributed across the U.S.; made possible by all of the people you see mentioned above.
The same can be said for the B’nai B’rith Center for Community Action. One program held in December has a story to share. Pinch Hitters, a Christmas-Day program carried out by members of the Achim/Gate City Lodge, has been a mainstay of the Atlanta community for nearly 40 years. It was recognized by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 as the 335th Point of Light award.
But what happens when volunteers and visitors cannot go into the locations that have been the usual places of service because of the pandemic? They get creative and seek out a way to fulfill their annual mitzvah. Volunteers worked with the Center for Community Action and the B’nai B’rith Communications Department to assemble talented people who recorded themselves performing songs or dances to share with us. These recordings became a two-hour video to be shared with the residents and patients of the facilities that had been visited in the past by B’nai B’rith volunteers. The video also shares an important message to the workers at these locations at this time. It is a huge thank-you to the staff of these locations who are not just essential workers—they are exceptional and always appreciated, especially now.
We learned that there are so many people who want to help others. This included young people, and a 96-year-old resident in a B’nai B’rith’s Senior Housing location and a staff member of the management office who arranged to record her at her piano keyboard. We heard from a member of the Achim/Gate City group who has been providing piano concerts for friends on Facebook since the pandemic began who offered to share his mini-concerts for this video. The Shalva Band from Israel allowed us to use a song that was shared at a recent award ceremony at the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. A runner-up in the first AEPi Talent Show submitted a clip of his guitar performance.
These are just a few of the 25 presentations that you can enjoy in the video. While many selections are holiday treats for Chanukah and Christmas, there are also love songs, cool jazz, salutes to the U.S.of A and interpretive dance. With the world continuing to face dark times until we see the end of this pandemic, we do not have to just enjoy this during the winter holiday season. It is a treasure to enjoy all year. You can watch the video here.
Please enjoy and share with others to show that PEOPLE are what B’nai B’rith is all about.
2020 has been a trying year. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll – in human life, in economic terms, in the functioning of society and in frayed nerves. The impact has been universal, if unequal. Our hearts go out particularly to those who have suffered, and lost, the most.
While the swift emergence of not only one but multiple vaccines effective at combating the coronavirus represents a substantial source of hope – and a scientific marvel – all signs indicate that months will pass before the treatment is very widely accessible, and during these months thousands more may yet die. Despite that threat, fatigue over restrictions meant to contain the pandemic have too many – from virtually every demographic group – relaxing or outright refusing to abide by precautions that grate on all of us. Some people, perhaps given pause by the very speed of the new vaccinations’ development, will hesitate to accept inoculation once possible.
Highly religious communities – by their nature placing a premium on congregating for prayer and other rites, on tradition uninterrupted and on faith – have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to resisting the perceived dictates of secular authorities. Certain religious groups, including Catholics and fervently observant Jews, have gone to court to fight, of late successfully, against curbs on gatherings for prayer. National media have shown some hassidic Jews continuing to gather in large numbers for weddings, schooling and eminent rabbis’ funerals. These episodes, though not reflecting the entirety of a large and diverse population – and not necessarily implying the absence of any health precautions – do indicate a suspicion of anti-religious (or specifically anti-Jewish) tendencies by some in government. This outlook is the product of long and difficult historical experience, and is also borne of a sense that in some places gyms and bars have been subjected to less scrutiny and regulation than synagogues and other places of worship.
Of course, ultimately nothing can condone reckless behavior that endangers the collective well-being. Scenes of crowds – of whatever stripe – completely flouting public health guidance are deplorable.
But what does Judaism itself have to say about exceptional circumstances like those we have confronted over the past year?
While undoubtedly committing the fate of human beings to God – and charging human beings with reaching out to God and with bettering their treatment of fellow creatures in the divine image – the Torah says “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” (Deut. 4), commanding: “and you shall guard your souls exceedingly.” It further says, of keeping God’s ordinances, “v’chai bahem” (Lev. 18), that “you shall live by them” – not perish by them. Additionally, relates Deuteronomy (chap. 30), “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is “not in the heavens,” but is to be observed within earthly realities.
Accordingly, rabbinic tradition has held that “pikuach nefesh docheh et kol haTorah kula,” that saving a life takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in Judaism; indeed, if a Sabbath must be violated by first responders to prevent death, or if medical experts require a patient not to fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason, doing so is not only allowed but mandatory. After all, the Ten Commandments themselves include “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20) – and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) says that “anyone who destroys a life, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, while anyone who sustains a life, it is considered as if he has sustained an entire world.”
Preserving life, then, is a most elemental of Jewish religious duties – a righteous deed that is prerequisite for all the rest. “I have set before you life and death... And you shall choose life,” states Deuteronomy.
Of relevance, the Talmud also repeatedly makes clear that “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law: when official regulations are established, they demand compliance. And Jews are called upon to be paragons of rectitude – for their public trespasses create “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, while their acting justly represents “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of God’s name.
And not least, Jews are instructed to choose “darchei shalom,” paths conducive to peace among people. The Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina (Berachot 64a), “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” The sage Hillel famously taught (Avot 1), “Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love humanity and bring them closer to the Torah.”
Life, and observing dueling commitments within its confines, involves complexity. Virtually all action involves some sort of risk, and it is for competent decisors to provide guidance on navigating tension of the kind that will periodically surface between religious commitments and civic commitments, let alone between religious commitments and the call to “choose life.” What is clear, though, is that for all the importance of communal religious practice – and in a community-centered people, places and acts of public worship are indeed vital – saving lives and preserving societal harmony are also critically important religious imperatives.
Believers, who discern God’s hand even in dark times, must work to see God’s hand in solutions to plight as well. And they must strive to be active partners in enabling these solutions to bring their healing.
As you may recall, a couple of years ago I wrote a blog entitled, “Senior Scams, A New Low” which detailed how low-life individuals prey on seniors for their own financial gain. Over the past few months, our world has been engulfed by COVID-19. While our nation has certainly seen fantastic stories of heroism born from the pandemic, our national crisis has also brought out the worst in people. If COVID-19 wasn’t bad enough, there are people in the world who are using this tragedy to profit through illegal streams. Sadly, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) indicated by the end of April that they had already received over 18,000 reports of fraud in connection to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, older Americans are susceptible to many of the reported scams being perpetrated relating to the crisis. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFBP) has announced scams encompassing the medical world (vaccines, test kits and etc.), fictious charities, Social Security and people falsely impersonating a loved one requesting money.
One scam, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), involves seniors being contacted through the mail and told that their social security benefits could be in jeopardy because of COVID-19. The letter goes onto provide a phone number for recipients to contact to rectify the problem. Once they call the number, they are expected to share sensitive personal and financial information. In response to scams like, SSA noted, “Social Security employees continue to work. Social Security will not suspend or decrease Social Security benefit payments or Supplemental Security Income payments due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Any communication you receive that says SSA will do so is a scam, whether you receive it by letter, text, email, or phone call.”
In another example, the Denver District Attorney, Beth McCann, in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS said that because of the pandemic, people are being fraudulently asked to provide bank information over the phone to get their stimulus checks faster. Furthermore, the elder abuse unit in McCann’s office reports of a couple who received an offer by a stranger to go grocery shopping; however, the couple had to provide the individual with their credit card information. McCann said in response, “And you know, you think that sounds like a good idea. But we just advise people: do not trust a stranger, do not give anyone your credit card information or bank account information, or let them into your home. Even if they seem nice, and they seem like they really want to help. Just rely on neighbors, friends, people that you know.”
So how can seniors be best prepared to weed out scams in the age of COVID-19?
First, SSA reports they will never pressure you with legal actions or offer you an increase in benefits in exchange for money, ask to handle matters in secret, email you personal information or ask for money through gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency or prepaid debit card. In addition, the FTC advises people to ignore all advertisements claiming to be a vaccine for COVID-19. Sadly, such a vaccine does not exist currently.
Plus, if someone is asking for money and claiming to be a relative, hang up the phone and call them back on their number, and ask questions only they would know. Furthermore, people should always research a charity before donating.
People should also take proactive steps when they come across scams like reporting the incidents to the authority. Federal government agencies like the Department of Justice (DOJ), Administration on Community Living (ACL) and the FTC have all setup platforms for people to report these cases. People can also take basic steps like calling their parents or grandparents and making them aware these schemes exist. While we probably can’t dissuade people from taking advantage of a national crisis, we can certainly make their lives significantly harder.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
The United Nations is warning countries to undertake all possible efforts to protect civilian populations, cautioning that the spread of coronavirus must not be wielded as a weapon to abuse power.
“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement. “They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.”
At the same time, Bachelet noted that countries are within their rights to implement restrictions to protect public health, but she argued they must be "necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory." But when the U.N. speaks of “proportionate,” it immediately calls to mind the disproportionate judgement and speeches replete with rhetorical flourishes that the body is known for.
Bachelet warned that the U.N. is aware of numerous reports that authorities across different regions have used excessive force by attempting to enforce lockdowns or curfews, and these situations have been happening in the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population. She also called on states to safely release people who have been detained for violating emergency measures, arguing that putting people in jail for breaking curfew has the reverse effect.
Georgette Gagnon, the office's director of field operations, described in an online policy briefing with reporters how many countries are responding excessively to the virus.
In particular, she pointed to the “heavy-handed” and “highly militarized” security response to the virus in places like South Africa, where they have seen authorities using rubber bullets, tear gas, water guns and whips to maintain social distancing in shopping lines.
Gagnon identified other places (the Philippines, Peru, Honduras, Sri Lanka and El Salvador) that are also displaying “highly militarized" responses to those who violate curfew or lockdown orders or excessive detention.
It may look encouraging that the High Comissioner and the Human Rights Office is concerned about the violation of human rights in the world today, and every day. But it is not real. The accusation of abuses does not include Venezuela, Cuba and Iran. So nothing is changing. The Human Rights Council (HRC) and the High Commissioner are again endorsing – this time with silence – what happens in those countries which are the greater abusers of human rights.
Moreover, there has not been one word from the Office of the High Commissioner about the ongoing campaign of accusations of conspiracy against Israel and against the Jewish people. When Bachelet speaks about violations against freedom, she should have condemned the vicious message of hatred from Iran, the Palestinians,and their proxies accusing the Jews of the pandemic. These accusations were spread in the Middle Ages for the “Black Death”.The silence of the High Commissioner is unacceptable.
Although it is one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, and the most brutal in the Americas, Venezuela is a member of the HRC. Is this a reason why the High Commissioner did not mention Venezuela in her speech against those who are human rights abusers in this pandemic?.
In Venezuela, in mid-March, the country’s health system was collapsing. Hospitals have closed or are operating at a fraction of their capacity, many without regular access to electricity or water. The public health infrastructure is so weak that in 2019, Venezuela had the world’s steepest rise in malaria cases. Vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and diphtheria have already returned long before the epidemic hit.
It is difficult to know how many coronavirus cases are in Venezuela. Maduro´s regime announced on April 30th that there have been only 10 coronavirus deaths and only several hundred cases. It is hard to believe, but both U.N. political agencies and the World Health Organization accept Venezuela’s official numbers as truthful.
In such a dangerous context, every country neighboring Venezuela is concerned with its own battle against the epidemic, and the Venezuelan humanitarian tragedy is not the main issue. Instead, Colombia and Ecuador are focused on protecting their own interests and closing their borders.
Venezuela’s health care infrastructure is so weak that the most basic recommendation—handwashing—is difficult even for health care providers, who work under difficult conditions. The Venezuelan doctors and nurses say that soap and disinfectants are virtually nonexistent in their clinics and hospitals. Public hospitals in Caracas, the capital, are also suffering regular water shortages. In remote hospitals, the shortages have lasted weeks to months. Patients and personnel are required to bring their own water for drinking and sometimes for flushing toilets.
This is the country that holds a seat in the HRC, and this is the country that the High Commissioner “forgets.” The High Commissioner’s omission is even more egregious because today Venezuela is worse than ever in its humanitarian crisis.
Bloomberg reported this week that “Out of cash and desperate for help in propping up its oil industry, Venezuela is raiding its gold vaults and handing tons of gold bars to its long-time ally Iran, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. Government officials piled some 9 tons of gold -- an amount equal to about $500 million -- on Tehran-bound jets this month as payment for Iran’s assistance in reviving Venezuela’s crippled gasoline refineries, For Iran, the deals provide a fresh source of revenue. For Venezuela, they ensure that its supply of gasoline doesn’t totally run out.The sanctioned Tehran-based carrier Mahan Air has flown more than half a dozen jets to the South American nation in the past week alone. Most delivered gasoline additives, parts and technicians to help repair a key refinery along Venezuela’s northwestern coast. Meanwhile, Mahan has sent other planes to the international airport outside of Caracas, where they are loaded with the gold bars to take back to Tehran.”
What benefit does a collapsed Venezuela provide (health, economy, insecurity) to the HRC? Of course, none. Just a confirmation of the unfortunate role of the commission and those who silently accept the unacceptable.
Anti-Semitism has not vanished due to the pandemic. It can still be seen on social media and in several countries. The Iranians traveling every week to South America through the open doors of Venezuela is not new, and it is not the first time it has happened. But in the time of pandemic, the Iranian presence and Hezbollah´s presence present a clear and present danger of more anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, this is another issue that the High Commissioner is not speaking about when she says she is worried with increasing dangers to freedom in Latin America.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.
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