Cover Feature: Banning pre-match handshakes is unhelpful

This article first featured in Edition #11 of the RMD magazine (March 7, 2020)

Coronavirus has set the world into panic stations, as the latest strain of a form of viruses which includes seasonal flu emerged in Wuhan, China and has since begun spreading globally. Still in the virus’ early stages, health officials around the world have rushed around to try and contain the virus, which increasingly looks set to become the newest name on the list of regular illnesses people must be careful about.

Much like seasonal flu, pneumonia (the very condition this latest coronavirus’ infection, Covid-19, presents patients with) it can be deadly, particularly to those with who are either elderly or suffering from underlying health conditions which may impact their immune system’s responses. However, it is worth understanding, despite the end-of-the-world rhetoric some sections of the media keep peddling, that this latest virus still has not proven itself as deadly as the aforementioned conditions like seasonal flu, which kill significantly more people each year than Covid-19 has done in the current outbreak, but which are now commonplace and so not treat with the same mass hysteria.

With that said, however, that doesn’t mean people can afford to be complacent. Just as we should as a society look to safeguard ourselves against already established viruses and conditions, we should do the same with this latest coronavirus.

That means taking reasonable precautions. The key word in all of that being reasonable.

It’s why the Premier League’s latest announcement to ban pre-match handshakes demonstrates little more than the league’s top officials buying into this mass hysteria which has taken over the general populace.

The singular, relatively insignificant handshake at the beginning of the match, when players are not likely to be heavily perspiring and so bodily fluid transfer (the main transmission method for this latest coronavirus) is likely to be low. Yet, these same players will then proceed to play an entire football match in which, as a contact sport, there will be numerous occasions on which they will be coming into close contact with each other.

That’s not the idea of tackling and such either, which seems to be the only aspect of contact football fans on social media seem to have grasped as existing. Yes, tackling and the like are not likely to spread coronavirus because your typical player doesn’t then manage to put his shin to his face, spreading any potential virus or infection he has picked up.

But, that’s not the same for situations like heading and defending set pieces. The amount of grappling between players which occurs in these situations is high, just as it is when players challenge for a header, and often times there will be bodily fluids, be that sweat or saliva, transferred onto both themselves, their fellow players and the ball itself.

All that then takes is somebody to then touch their hand or arm to their mouth in the follow few seconds or minutes, and there is the risk of transfer. It is unavoidable, and yet given the extensive medical departments present at top level clubs and the general peak athleticism and health that these professional athletes maintain themselves at, the risk of serious harm even should they be infected by such a virus as the emerging coronavirus is relatively slim.

All banning the pre-match handshake does is further the sense of panic among the general public. It doesn’t send a message of being cautious but continuing with our lives. Instead, it suggests this virus is the end of times and we should isolate from any contact with the outside world.

Narrative in these situations is extremely important, and the Premier League’s approach over the handshakes, as insignificant as it might have seemed, may well do more collective harm than good. Talk of games behind closed doors is different, that is to protect fans – particularly elderly fans who are potentially at risk – but even then these decisions have to be made carefully and with rational minds.

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