Sport and the Precarious Australian Open

Current Australia is one of places in the world where you are least likely to become infected with Covid-19.

Keeping it that way, is extremely difficult when a significant percentage of international arrivals can bring the virus into a country only enduring cursory changes to lifestyle in the face of the pandemic. The fragile freedom from Covid-19 is only maintained by extreme vigilance at the borders, and aggressive action when infections do break through.

There is a Christmas gathering of perhaps 8 people I am scheduled to attend in area outside of the lockdown, but even that event is now threated as a result of less so far 30 local transmission cases in country of 25 million. This is because in the last few days, cases of virus within the community of Sydney, a city of 5 million people, have risen from zero, to numbers of less than 20 infections per day. In response, a large percentage of the city has entered compulsory lockdown, and the rest of the city is on voluntary lockdown.

Further, there is now bad news from Great Britain, which could offset any reductions in viral spread from a vaccine, and make current lockdown measures ineffective, is that there is a strain of Covid-19 which is even more infectious. It is a very precarious time.

It must be said that the Australian Open, scheduled to take place just over one month from now is looking quite precarious! Perhaps the only viable solution is actually even more tennis in Australia?

  • International Sport In Australia During The Pandemic
  • Is the Australian Open Viable
  • Why Travel for a Tournament?
  • ‘Local Transmission’ in Australia
  • Bad News From Great Britain
  • The World Outlook in December 2020
  • More Tennis in Australia?

International Sport In Australia During The Pandemic

Interstate sport has had crowds of 50,000 for the ‘state of origin’ games in early November, there was an international Rugby tournament with New Zealand and Argentina from October through December.

There is also currently a international cricket tour by a visiting team representing India that started in November.

All these matches have had normal crowd numbers, following on from local sporting fixtures seeing crowds from July and scaling up to full capacity by November.

Is the Australian Open Viable

The difficulty for the Australian tennis open is that players come from all over the world, and rather than being one or two national teams, they are hundreds of individual entourages. Bringing all these players through quarantine individually is a logistics challenge. It seems to require bringing 1,000 people into a covid-19 free country. How many of these people can test positive before the plan collapses? If the current outbreak in Sydney grows and spreads interstate,

Why Travel for one or two Tournaments?

It is normal that to play in the Australian Open, most players travel halfway around the world. As if travelling during a pandemic with all the disruptions to flights and risks is not already sufficiently problematic, players this year also have to quarantine in isolation for two weeks.

The format of tennis tournaments dictates that half of all players play only one match in the entire tournament. Only one in 16 player play for more than one week.

‘Local Transmission’ in Australia.

In Australia, the term ‘local transmission’ is used to differentiate people who were infected with Covid-19 in the community in Australia from cases of Covid-19 in people in quarantine who acquired the virus prior to arriving in Australia. Statistics like worldometers do not make this distinction as for most countries, unlike Australia, the number of cases in quarantine is insignificant. In most states of Australia, on most days all cases detected are cases in quarantine. Prior to the current ‘northern beaches cluster’, there had been 12 days of not a single ‘locally acquired case in the entire country. In every state other than Victoria, there have been more cases in quarantine than locally acquired for the entire pandemic, and most states have been ‘locally acquired cases free’ for months.

Bad News From Great Britain

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed tighter COVID-19 restrictions ahead of Christmas, after he was briefed that a new strain of the virus circulating in south-east England could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed tighter COVID-19 restrictions ahead of Christmas, after he was briefed that a new strain of the virus circulating in south-east England could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

There is no evidence that vaccines will be any less effective against this new strain, but it can still cause some problems.

Lockdowns are effective because they reduce the ‘r-number’, or spread factor of Covid-19 below 1.0. However, these lockdowns rarely reduce the r-number below 0.7, which means that a virus that spreads 70% more would still be spreading during a lockdown that is effective against Covid-19 up to now.

At this stage, current vaccines are designed to stop people infected with Covid-19 from becoming ill, but do not prevent being infected, and they potentially spreading the virus.

The fact that you’re vaccinated does not mean you still cannot transmit the virus to other people. At this point, it is still unclear if the vaccines can prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That’s one of the takeaways from an interview Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla had with Dateline host Lester Holt. Another piece from the NY Times confirmed everyone’s worst fear. “The new vaccines will probably prevent you from getting sick with Covid. No one knows yet whether they will keep you from spreading the virus to others,” NY Times wrote.

Pfizer CEO said it’s uncertain if the vaccine can prevent transmission of coronavirus

Current data suggest each asymptomatic people is less likely to spread the virus than an symptomatic person. Given the large number of asymptomatic people, these people probably are collectively responsible for more spread. Still, a vaccine should move more people into the asymptomatic group, and that alone could reduce spread by an estimated 50%.

Even if people have less severe infections, and as a result spread less of the virus, if what they do spread is itself more infectious, then in terms of spread, the benefit of the vaccine may be largely offset by this new strain. The vaccine still reduces spread by the same factor, but if there is more spread to start then the result, could be just a return to what we have now.

The World in December 2020

As of December 18, there are now almost 3/4 of a million confirmed new cases of Covid-19 per day, and over 12,000 deaths per day. That is in humans. We have little data on how much spread exists in other species, although we do know other species are also affected.

The virus does not appear likely to ‘magically all of a sudden go away and disappear‘.

I do not think that a virus with the current number of infections per day has ever been defeated before. The fictitious character in Jurassic park declares “if there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it is that life will not be contained”. There is some truth to idea that given a large enough population, ‘life finds a way’ to deal with new challenges through evolution. We have been managing outbreaks of Covid-19 with lockdowns, and just perhaps, ‘lockdown resistant’ coronavirus is starting to emerge.

An even bigger concern is that ‘vaccine resistant’ coronavirus could thrive in community where the virus is still spreading, but a significant percentage of people have been vaccinated. Caution may be required, qualifying the believe that ‘the end is near’ into ‘hopefully the end is near if we are careful’.

Hopefully all will settle as vaccines rollout, but there is a very uncertain few months ahead. There seem to be more countries currently facing their worst phase of the pandemic than there are with the pandemic under control.

The US open was held without spectators in the USA in the first two weeks of September 2020 when US cases were around 40,000 per day, or around 6x lower than the current approximately 240,000 per day. It will take some time before the US is again ready for even a tournament without crowds. The French open was held, very limited spectators in late September early October when deaths from Covid-19 were less than 100 per day, while now they have been averaging 400 per day. Wimbledon was not held in June/July 2020 June because there were around 50 deaths per day at the time, yet there are now around 500 deaths per day in the UK.

More Tennis in Australia?

So in theory, around 128 of the top men, and around 128 of the top women, tennis players in the world all travel all the way to Australia and then quarantine for two weeks, so that half of the people will be eliminated from the main tournament in their first match?

I believe each player would potentially be eligible to play in another two planned tournaments, but in the reality very few of the 50% of player eliminated in the first round of the Australian Open will be invited to those tournaments.

Most of the players, after one match, will not only have no more tennis in Australia after all that trouble, there will have no tennis to go to elsewhere in the world either, unless someone creates some international invitation tournaments. One of the best places in the world for such tornaments would be Australia.

Surely there are enough potential television rights to justify holding some more tournaments in Australia, given all the player will already be ‘in town’, through quarantine and thus in a largely Covid-19 free environments?

Without a more significant time block of tennis planned in Australia, player have all that travel and quarantine, for a very short time when, if something goes wrong in the key two weeks, it has all been for nothing. A plan for a longer visit with more tennis would not only make more sense, having more time would also increase flexibility and lower the risk that short schedule disruption at the wrong moment means the whole thing was for nothing.

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