I’m what’s known as a cricket nut (or cricket tragic as some cruelly say). I played cricket for well over 40 years at school and in Wellington, Christchurch and Kapiti Coast. I even reached the heady heights of best bowler for my Kapiti President’s grade team for three successive years and got my only hattrick in my last game. I bowled autumn leaves. If one has ever trying to hit falling autumn leaves with a cricket bat one will appreciate how difficult that is.
Cricket, India and Covid-19
This love for cricket, however, can’t override advocating that the right thing over Covid-19 in India which is experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian emergency that is still unfolding and with no end in sight. Its collapsing health system including lack of oxygen for hospitalised patients and, in the streets, bodies burnt in pyres (wooden structures made for cremation).
This seems contradictory in the country that has produced the most vaccines, including AstraZeneca. But the proportion of its population that is immunised is still very low. One obvious lesson is that people can’t social distance in poverty meaning that there are more than enough susceptible people for the virus to keep spreading.
According to the Gavi Vaccine Alliance India’s rolling seven-day average Covid-19 daily death rate increased from around 100 on 24 February to around 1,800 on 22 April. This data confirms is a crisis in its own right but the reality is that because of extensive undercounting the number of deaths is much higher.
From mutations to variants
The World Health Organisation advises that all viruses (including SARS-CoV-2 which is the virus that causes COVID-19) evolve over time. When a virus replicates or makes copies of itself sometimes it changes a little bit. This is normal. These changes are called mutations. A virus with one or more new mutations is referred to as a variant of the original virus.
When a virus is widely circulating in a population such as India’s it greatly increases infections which, in turn, increases the likelihood of the virus mutating. The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates; and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes. It’s an exponential spiral.
Most viral mutations have little to no impact on the virus’s ability to cause infections and disease. But variants, depending on where the changes are located in the virus’s genetic material, may affect a virus’s properties, one of which is transmission. This means that variants may spread more or less easily with more or less disease severity. India is experiencing more (much more) of both ease of spread and severity.
Why on earth!
This humanitarian emergency raises the question of why on earth is there an international cricket tournament being held in India right now, including 10 New Zealand players (plus 7 staff). The India Premier League (IPL) hosts a highly lucrative (for owners and investors especially along with players and coaching staff) and popular T20 tournament in this most cricket mad country. At this point I must declare that I don’t consider to T20 to be cricket; its merely glorified baseball. But, for the purpose of this blog, reluctantly and with gritted teeth I’ll accept that it is.
The IPL is aware of the risk to the players with special bubbles and other protective measures put in place along with an absence of crowds. But India is facing a pandemic crisis more than any other country to date with new yet to be fully analysed variants which, compounded by widespread poverty, has meant that virus contagiousness is much greater than the second or third waves that have raged through much of the rest of the world.
Government action required
India is experiencing hugely increased transmission of variants that are much more severe than the original virus. The chances of an individual cricketer or staffer becoming infected is low but, with so many from many countries, the risk compounds. Three Australians and one Indian cricketer have withdrawn. Australian fast bowler Pat Cummings generously donated $50,000(A) to India’s overrun hospitals. But political action is required.
New Zealand’s government has a responsibility to use the international moral authority the country has deservedly earned through our highly successful elimination strategy to call for the IPL to be cancelled or re-scheduled. If this doesn’t eventuate it should insist that the New Zealanders return home forthwith.
Further, slightly overlapping with the end of the IPL there is a two-test series (real cricket in other words) against and in England. This series is followed by the first ever world cup final for test cricket in England against India. The Government needs to require all those test cricketers and accompanying staff and families to be vaccinated rather than it being voluntary.
People can exercise a right not to be vaccinated. However, with this right should go the responsibility not to encroach upon the rights of other people not to have the risk of infection increased no matter how low.
I was very disappointed to hear one of our greatest and most admired test cricketers Ross Taylor publicly state that he had yet to make up his mind whether to be vaccinated. Sorry Ross but the safety of other people trumps this position. To cut to the chase, no vaccination, no tests in England no matter how good the cricketer.
Olympics: don’t rely on Valarie Adams
This leads on to the Olympics to be held in Japan in three months’ time. Japan’s situation isn’t as severe as India’s but, on 14 April, had a seven day rolling average daily death rate of 50 and increasing, far more competitors and officials from all most all countries in the world than the IPL, and a very low vaccination rate unlikely to improve much before the event. Further, Japan is not requiring participants or attendees to be vaccinated.
The Government should be urging that the Olympics be cancelled despite the huge disappointment. Failing that it should be requiring New Zealand participants and attendees to be vaccinated. It is good that gold medallist shot-putter Valarie Adams is urging other competitors to vaccinate but it should not come to this.
Requiring vaccinations for our test cricketers and Olympians is ‘just cricket’ and much more aligned with the spirit of the Olympics. Government has a leadership responsibility to step up.
Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion.