Note: This piece expands a little on a Twitter thread that I published earlier today.
Today it was reported that the UAE Team Emirates cycling team had all received the Chinese Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine while they attended an Abu Dhabi winter training camp. The team counts among its members, the 22 year-old Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar.
Now research does seem to suggest that the United Arab Emirates is second only to Israel in rolling out Covid vaccines, but the most recent data suggests it’s still less than 10% of the population. So it’s entirely reasonable to ask why young, fit athletes are jumping the queue? (This is all before we get into the thorny subject of those who work in the UAE but aren’t citizens there. E.g. Vast numbers of those working in construction.)
We’ve heard a few voices over recent days and weeks, expounding on why it’s necessary for sports people to get a vaccine as soon as possible. The Burnley manager Sean Dyche, not a noted immunologist, was quoted as saying that footballers should be “fast-tracked” and that “vaccination is the way forward throughout football.” You can read the rest of what he said here. It makes little to no sense, and can basically be paraphrased as, “It would be great if we could get vaccines because then we could carry on as normal.” How considerate of him.
Meanwhile the IOC has been hinting that athletes attending the Tokyo games this summer [at time of writing] might get the vaccine in the second wave. I.e. after all the most vulnerable people have had it. They are at least a bit more aware than Dyche that the optics might not look all that good.
Because the ethical challenge across the board here is that global supplies of vaccines are very limited, while richer countries have sourced doses faster and in much greater quantities than poorer countries. Production is not yet able to meet the needs of the planet, and some countries are a very long way down the queue in their access to doses of vaccine.
A report published just before Christmas said that rich countries representing 14% of the world’s population have bought up 53% of eight most promising vaccines. Many poor countries will see almost no vaccine in 2021. Should those countries’ Olympians get first dibs on what vaccine doses are made available?
The UK currently has ambitious plans to reach the everyone in what it considers to be the top four most vulnerable groups by the middle of February:
- Care home residents and care home workers
- People aged 80+ and frontline health and social care workers
- People aged 75-79
- People aged 70-74 and clinically vulnerable people
Beyond that there are plans to reach all of those aged 50+ as well as those of any age with underlying health conditions.
Different countries might have slightly different priorities – perhaps adding key workers to the mix. But most will appreciate that the order that the UK and other countries are devising are to minimise hospitalisation and death.
So does sport have the moral authority to jump that queue? And on what grounds? Sports men and women tend to be some of the youngest, healthiest and fittest members of society. There will be edge cases of course, but for the most part, they almost certainly don’t need to be at the front of the line.
If there were sufficient doses of vaccine available, then a case could be made. There are plenty of private Covid testing operations in place that don’t impact on the availability of public services. But that’s not true of the vaccines.
While I’ve no doubt that there will be illicit ways to jump the queue, letting wealthier people pay their way up the list, that shouldn’t be condoned.
I think most sports bodies are beginning to have a dawning realisation that their events are going to need to be different for a while yet. I can’t honestly see how stadia are going to be full in the next year prior to mass immunisation. So bleating about the lack of crowds at Lions tour games or whatever seems utterly misplaced. And in Tokyo, athletes may have to get used to the idea that the Olympic Village is not going to be quite as hedonistic as it has been in the past.
Personally I think next time someone from a sports team or body is talking about getting vaccines before healthcare workers, the elderly, the vulnerable, those with severe underlying health conditions, those in the services, those teaching our children, or those delivering our food and goods, they should take a very long hard look at themselves.