The novel coronavirus: Matches behind closed doors would be the right measure now

Justin Separator March 10, 2020

On Monday it was decided that the Champions League second leg of Dortmund away to Paris will take place in front of an empty stadium. In Italy, too, the latest games have already been played behind closed doors. DFL boss Seifert said on Monday: “We would love to play […] the next matchday in front of full stadiums. But unfortunately that is not realistic”. The reason: The novel coronavirus.

My personal reaction to these measures was similar to that of many football fans on social media: It was all panic mongering, hysteria and total exaggeration! Why go to such lengths now for something that seems to be about as dangerous as the regular flu?

Well, that is why I usually write articles about football and FC Bayern and not about medical topics. Because I obviously have no knowledge of such things. And so I started doing some research on the matter and came across facts and arguments that should finally show me how wrong my initial impulse and how selfish my way of thinking were.

The big difference to the seasonal flu

Only just over 1200 cases in Germany (as of Tuesday, March 10) do not really seem to be a lot, especially in comparison to other diseases, especially since so far only three German citizens have died from the disease. But this is not about me. It is not about the majority of the population who would probably survive an infection with the novel coronavirus without any problems, and even the current figures are not central.

Above all, it is about protecting the part of the population that is listed by the “Robert Koch Institute” (RKI; the government’s central scientific institution in the field of biomedicine) as “persons with a higher risk for a severe COVID-19 course of the disease”. This pertains in particular to people between the age of 50 to 60 and older: “Older people in particular, due to their less adaptive immune system, can become more seriously ill after an infection (immune senescence).”

An argument that I have also used a lot recently is that the situation is essentially the same as it is with other diseases such as the annual flu, but that no great effort is made there to control the disease. Lars Fischer finds a plausible answer to this in this article: “We all come into contact with the different flu viruses that occur every year. According to estimates, about 15 percent of the world’s population gets infected with one of the circulating influenza strains every year, thereby gaining partial immunity”. For example, the subtype H3N2, which first appeared in 1968, is now only fatal for a fraction of the population.

However, when in 1973 it came across a tribe in the Amazon basin that had not previously been in contact with the virus, around a quarter of the population died, although its severity had already lessened to seasonal flu status for the rest of the world. Fischer’s conclusion: In the case of the coronavirus, “we would all be such an Amazonian tribe”. There is no basic immunity (yet), and so the virus is able to spread much faster.

The Spreading must be slowed down

As the data of the “World Health Organization” (WHO) shows, it is possible for the cases to double each week unless major measures are taken. At first glance, this may lead the casual observer to the conclude that, well, at least we may be done with it sooner then. But a surge of new cases within a short time may in fact lead to a number of rather big problems.

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The graphic of this tweet shows impressively why this is so. Measures such as games behind closed doors in the Bundesliga may not only delay the peak of the outbreak, but also stretch it out over time, which gives experts more time to research the virus. Above all, however, a thus lower peak may remain approximately within the limits of what our health system can cope with.

Therefore, without adequate measures, there is a risk that the system could become overburdened, which would lead to further serious consequences that have knock-on effects going beyond just the illness of corona patients itself. The RKI writes:

“The aim of this strategy is to gain time in Germany to prepare and learn more about the characteristics of the virus, identify risk groups, prepare protective measures for particularly vulnerable groups, increase treatment capacities in hospitals, investgate possibilities for antiviral drugs and vaccine development. It is also intended to avoid, as far as possible, a coincidence with the current wave of influenza in Germany, as this could lead to a maximum burden on medical care structures.”Statement by the RKI, 3 March 2020

In view of these facts, football as a whole is a minor matter. “Our society is too individualistic, it’s not about football matches but about protecting vulnerable people, the elderly and the sick. Italy is showing us the way, Japan, Switzerland.” This is how Berlin based family doctor Sibylle Katzenstein put it in a nutshell on the TV talk show “Anne Will”.

Games behind closed doors would be right!

Having read all that, it dawned on me that I was wrong with my original opinion. My all too selfish thought was that I would like to watch next weekend’s game against Union Berlin live in the stadium. I assumed that I was in a physically good shape and concluded that the virus would pose no danger to me. That may be true – and that is still the good news – for most of the population. But I did not think far enough. It is not just about me. 

Instead, we should all show a little more solidarity at this time, let go of the football we all love and take a step back from our first impulses. It is not primarily a question of football surviving all this as well as possible, but of society helping to minimise the damage to the people most at risk and doing as much as it can for the continued effectiveness of our health system.

In this respect, measures such as games behind closed doors would not be tantamount to taking action for the sake of taking action, but forward-looking and prudent decisions. There can therefore be no talk of a panic reaction. Preventing the gathering of large crowds in public spaces seemed like a suitable measure to protect the most vulnerable part of the population and to allow doctors and scientists more time to study the virus in depth. Caution is appropriate and necessary in this case. Calmness is too. But making light of it or showing negligence is not.

That is why my original opinion has changed: Games behind closed doors seems to be the way to go for football in the coming weeks. After all, this is not about completely shutting down public life. It is only about football and similar forms of public entertainment. Any mass congregation of people that does not take place should be seen as a step forward. Personally, I am glad that experts make these decisions and not people like me, who initially succumbed to a completely wrong impulse.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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