What an eventful week in the sub-topical world of COVID rugby league. There were NRL fixture postponements, negotiations with the Queensland government and the continuing World Cup saga.
To top it all off, Peter V’landys entered the vaccine debate.
On a positive note, there has been talk of using players as pin-ups for inoculation, role models in convincing the general public to take up vaccination.
But it is some of the more authoritarian noises about forced vaccines that somewhat unnerve. There are rumours of making vaccination near-compulsory for players, mimicking the NFL.
The purported policy isn’t as arbitrary as an outright ban on unvaccinated players. In the NFL, the policy is to deal with issues of isolation and punishment for unfulfilled games differently depending on vaccination status.
Because vaccination reduces the chances of contracting and spreading coronavirus, such differentials make epidemiological sense. Indeed, much of Super League’s fixture difficulties owe themselves to oversensitive tracing, coupled with inflexible public health policy that fails to account for vaccination status.
With the NRL planning on making vaccination a prerequisite for attendance, it could be argued that the players are being dealt with more liberally than fans. But it doesn’t necessarily make it morally acceptable.
The fine line between encouragement and coercion is becoming blurred. As unvaccinated players will be subjected to the current Level 4 bubble protocols, regardless of the societal rules, claims of ‘individual choice’ may ring hollow.
For the sake of understanding, it’s important to note where I’m coming from personally. I have been vaccinated. I am also a vaccinator, inoculating citizens in the UK for the past seven months, at St Helens’ ground no less.
I received Oxford Astra-Zeneca as an under 30 and have been utterly dismayed by the commentariat and politicians around the world (Australia included) needlessly and recklessly attempting to discredit this safe, efficacious vaccine.
In short, I’m very much pro-vaccine and unless you have a good medical reason, choosing not to get vaccinated is a stupid decision.
But I will also protect your right to be an idiot. Once everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated, it shouldn’t matter if the person next to you isn’t. Approved vaccines are over 90 per cent effective against hospitalisation.
While the aforementioned statistics do reduce the chances of contracting and being infectious, they do not eliminate such risk. This almost immediately renders vaccine passports irrelevant for any type of large public gathering, particularly for societies seeking to emerge from the pandemic and live alongside COVID as they do any other endemic respiratory virus.
The alternative is to maintain the zero COVID ‘Fortress Australia’ strategy in perpetuity.
Back on the NRL, attempting to force vaccines on unresponsive players will only become counterintuitive in the long term. You run the risk of entrenching pre-existing views, and pushing top players away from the sport to other leagues that have a more forgiving stance.
Such policy and politics isn’t unprecedented. One of the hurdles to 2020’s Project Apollo restart was government reticence over flu vaccinations, particularly the reluctance of Josh Papalii and Bryce Cartwright.
But the NRL stood up to the Prime Minister’s blanket ‘no jab, no play’ policy, and eventually came up with an addendum to the waiver over medical risk.
Players instead acknowledged that they had been informed of the risks and downsides to rejecting the flu vaccine. Why can’t the same policy be applied with this vaccine?
In the aftermath of the Australasian retreat from the international game, NZRL’s Greg Peters cited reluctance to get vaccinated by players as a reason for World Cup withdrawal.
It would have been far more productive to consult players before making any decision and explain the benefits, rather than issue an unpopular universal diktat that will only purvey suspicions of authority.
The work done by Papua New Guinea’s Justin Olam in fronting the vaccination program in his home country is laudable. For the NRL to claim credit and oversee any messaging screams of opportunism and seeking positive public relations. It’s particularly galling while they heavily emphasise the latter part of a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy.
The NRL’s claims to be championing vaccines while simultaneously coercing players seems contradictory. But this is the same organisation that champions the sport’s Olympic inclusion while pulling out and scuppering the World Cup, the game’s biggest international showcase.