Sports and celebrations are the antithesis of social distancing, far from the optimum degree of remoteness required between individuals and between social groups in the time of a pandemic. As COVID-19 takes hold, spreading first from China to other parts of Asia, and then to Europe and the Americas, crowds and spectacle pose a real threat to public health and well-being. Runners sprinting full tilt despite overworked limbs and bowlers stretching every muscle are all part of sporting lore that feeds the ‘toughness myth’ of athletes. Yet, whatever the immunity innate to sportspersons, it offers no guaranteed protection against a malevolent virus. But what is at stake now goes beyond sport and festivities. Fans trooping into massive stadiums, cheering and swapping high-fives, devotees gathering at places of worship, lost to the world in their prayers, shoppers and movie-goers at malls, travellers passing through airports and railway stations, all are at risk in this situation. Ideally, sport’s grand theatre and the coming together of people in public spaces should be cause for joy; but with the grim march of COVID-19, triggering cough, fever and in extreme cases putting lives in peril, social distancing and cancellation of public events are necessary. Quite rightly, sports administrators globally have called off tournaments or kept spectators away. But in India, where the Indian Premier League (IPL) is as intrinsic to its summers as mangoes, speculation lingered about its earlier schedule of a March 29 start. Thankfully, better sense prevailed within the BCCI and the Twenty20 bash was postponed.
True, the BCCI’s hand was forced after the Sports Ministry’s missive about staging events without an audience and the government’s refusal of visas to foreigners till April 15. The IPL is a domestic tournament with an international flavour that needed both the heft of a vociferous crowd and the brand equity of overseas stars. With the twin facets ruled out for the time being, the Board had to take a stand and it made a virtue of a necessity. The IPL, if it had adhered to its original dates, would have been a strain on the overworked health sector. Fans, even if they are prevented from entering venues, would have thronged team hotels. The innumerable flights that the eight squads take to different cities could only have made the cricketers even more vulnerable. However, the situation is still fluid and it all depends on how the pandemic shapes up in the coming weeks. A Ministry of Health and Family Welfare note emphatically states that mass gatherings ‘should be avoided or possibly postponed till the disease spread is contained’. Valued at ₹47,500 crore, the IPL brand is a huge money-spinner but the citizens’ health and welfare must take precedence. Public interest should always trump profit mindedness.
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