April 2021
April 13, 2021

Should athletes jump the vaccine queue?

6 min read

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

As Malaysia rolled out its nationwide vaccination campaign for the Covid-19, questions on whether national athletes should be given priority needs a more comprehensive look at.

The Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) hopes for national athletes for the Tokyo 2020 Games as well as the Vietnam SEA Games be given some sort of priority after the frontliners.  According to the Malaysian sports Minister a list of 4,000 athletes and officials has been submitted for early vaccination under the national Covid-19 immunisation campaign.

Its minister, Reezal Merican Naina Merican said the list is of those who will be representing the country at international competitions such as the Olympic Games, SEA Games and Asian Games.

While most in the sports fraternity would like to see athletes given the vaccine to help resume international sports, and in some cases selected national sporting event, it is indeed an awkward situation.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president John Coates said yesterday that athletes were encouraged to get vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the Tokyo Olympics but it would not be compulsory.

Since the pandemic started, many international events had resumed without vaccination but with stringent procedures that included regular testing, compulsory quarantine as well as the adoption of the “bubble” system.

IOC President Thomas Bach had also said last month that it was up to national Olympic committees to coordinate with their governments over access to vaccines but he was not in favour of athletes “jumping the queue”.

He had said that there would be neither a vaccine obligation nor a priority to athletes for the Tokyo Olympics.

However, around the world the sporting fraternity is indeed clamouring for priority vaccination for their respective athletes, despite outward condemnation of the move.

Even in Australia, where Coates himself is also the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, expected the country’s athletes to be vaccinated by June at “the latest”.

Sporting events can still go ahead without vaccination but the athletes have to go through a stringent procedure in participation.

Going through any such stringent procedures is not going to affect the players livelihood as would be the case for many in the general population that  need to get back to normalization in order to put food on their tables.

China, which produces its own vaccine including Sinopharm and Sinovac , have even pulled out their athletes from numerous international events, when they could have easily prioritized the vaccination of their athletes.

Is the health risk of a sportsman more important than those without sporting abilities?

The FA of Malaysia (FAM) and Malaysian Football League (MFL) have sent in application to the government to seek early COVID-19 vaccination for some 2,500 players and officials, who are at the elite level, for the survival of the Malaysia League (M-League).

Is the survival of the M-League more important than a bartender, a cobbler, a traditional masseur, a tour guide, a construction worker or the numerous day-to-day wage earners, who have not been able to get their lives back together?

Or is it more important than the close to 3 million Malaysian with diabetics or the millions who have inherent medical problems including heart ailments, asthma?

Or how about the thousands of Malaysian workers stranded overseas, who have been unable to return due to the lockdowns and closed borders?

While sports is an important part of our lives, it is not the elite participation but sports in the form of regular exercise and participation by the common man.

This is not an issue of us getting excited about our sports personalities winning at the international level but about what is the most important for Malaysians in general.

In a recent interview with the BBC, British cycling Paralympian Neil Fachie had this to say: “we are fairly young, fit people who would not be considered high risk for Covid. The last thing you want to do is take vaccine away from someone who needs it more.”

Yes we all need some break from this long and challenging pandemic times and sport will give us an opportunity to take our minds away from the gloom and doom. But so will be going out for a movie, going to a pub or a concert.

If the objective of vaccination is to stop the spread of the contagious coronavirus, isn’t it an oxymoron situation that there was a need to start a potential super-spreader sports event and in the same tune that it was important for athletes to be vaccinated to stop the virus from spreading.

In case of the Olympics, a majority of the resident’s in Tokyo are against the Olympics taking place in the first place. But it is still being rammed down their throats because the Olympics “is just too important” to be cancelled as compared to the negative health implications.

World Health Organization officials indicated last month that they do not believe Olympic athletes should receive priority access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly if it means cutting ahead of the world’s health care workers and elderly population.

Issues that without the sports events taking place as soon as possible, the sports industry would be killed off also falls flat.

Many other industries have also been virtually shut off by the prolonged lockdown. These include the tourism industry, hoteliers, event management outfits to name a few.

The reality is that there are just not enough vaccine coming into Malaysia in the immediate future that would ensure all front-liners, the elderly and those with other inherent diseases were vaccinated first.

With vaccine delays creating hurdles, wealthy countries are also competing  to purchase more vaccines leaving the less affluent ones scrambling for what is left. While many of our neighbours had started the vaccination process much earlier, Malaysia is still stuttering in its initial stages.

Countries like Hungary, Israel and Serbia have already gone ahead and vaccinated their would-be Olympians to ensure they are free to train, qualify, travel and compete. But does that mean every other country must follow suit?

The Italian Olympic Committee is one of the few to buck the trend. Its president Giovanni Malago told La Repubblica newspaper : “We will never ask for this and we don’t want it, either. An elderly person has a sacred right to be vaccinated before a 20-year-old athlete is.”

Maybe the Italians have a different perception on the issue, having been ravaged by the pandemic early on. Close to 97,000 Italians have succumbed to the pandemic till date.

Sure, sport gets more eyeballs and has immense entertainment value and financial returns. But is sport so special that it needs to get priority status?

Looking at it on a purely sporting value may justify priority vaccination, but lets take a look from the morality point of view.

Is an Olympic medal more valuable than a life of someone more deserving being denied the priority vaccination? Is this what sportsmanship and Olympism is all about?

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