The Canberra Raiders are currently facing a predicament that the whole world is facing in some way or another. How do you deal with people that refuse to get vaccinated?
It’s a proper dilemma and it will have ramifications. The Raiders currently have a lower vaccination rate than the Australian community. As my dude Arwon pointed out, the data suggests 12 people in Canberra aren’t vaccinated, and it seems that all of them play for the Milk. It was a joke (a good one even) but too close to reality. The Daily Telegraph identified four, reporting that Josh Papalii, Joe Tapine, and two others are hold outs. Papalii is on the record, and he along with Tapine both were reluctant to the get vaccinated last year for influenza, as per QLD health requirements at the time, so this seems plausible. We have our theories on the other two, but well, until they’re public, we won’t make them.
There are ramifications for this both on and off the field. The good news is that at an individual level the players themselves are unlikely to catch Covid. This is because of the good work of the people like you, and the rest of the Raiders playing roster. The vaccination rate in Canberra is one of the highest for any city in the world (if not the highest). Thank God for Canberrans. That rate will keep the circulation of the virus to much less than it would be otherwise, meaning less opportunity for these players to risk their health. But make no mistake, the risk is much higher than it would be if they were vaccinated. Unvaccinated people catch the coronavirus more readily, pass it on to more people, and suffer more dire health consequences (see here, here, and here).
There are obvious on-field ramifications. At the very least they will miss up to six games due to restrictions on travel and work for unvaccinated people in both Queensland and Victoria (we knew the lack of games in Sydney would have implications, but this isn’t what I had in mind). They are also more likely to than others to miss games from exposure to coronavirus. While Australia (and Canberra in particular) doesn’t have the caseload of other countries, seeing the regularity at which players miss games with ‘rona in the both the NBA and the NFL should highlight that this scenario isn’t far fetched. What’s more, by making themselves more susceptible to catching it, there’s more risk they’ll pass it on to team-mates, vaccinated or not. So while the Raiders will miss this quartet for six games, they could be me missing more than this.
This puts an obvious strain on the roster. The Raiders can cover the immediate issue – Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler, Trey Mooney, Harry Rushton and Peter Hola are all people that are keen to prove their worth. If backs are unavailable, Xavier Savage, Harley Smith-Shields and Bailey Simonsson have all proved they are ready for more opportunities in first grade – in fact anyone giving up a starting spot to Savage may just provide him the daylight he needs to sprint through to make the job his own (Smith-Shields is similarly ready, but the sprinting like doesn’t quite work the same). But beyond creating required but unnecessary shifting, the real problem is if a player, or players, are exposed and create a cluster, the Raiders could be forced to test the edges of their roster. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
And while they can fill the spots, the nature of the players named, or suggested, means that absences for vaccine hold-outs will create severe problems for the Raiders. For example, they’ve won 59 per cent of the games that Josh Papalii has played over the last three seasons (even with last season’s dumpster fire). It’s a small sample size without him, but that winning percentage drops to 33 per cent. It’s also 33 per cent without both Papa and Taps (though only three games). But the numbers are irrelevant. We all know if the Green Machine miss these players for the rumoured six games it will have a significant impact on their finals chances.
Let’s hope the players who have decided against getting the vaccination are given the space to change their minds. While opposition to the Covid vaccine is often presented as an individual response made by people keen to preserve their autonomy, the truth is more complicated. Individual choice does not occur in a vacuum. We are all influenced, and responsive to, the environmental factors that shape our views, from the networks and people will roll with. The mess of the impact of colonialism, religion and neoliberalism in Australia and overseas has wreaked havoc with vaccine rollout and hesitancy in marginalised communities. Here is us reaping the consequences of centuries of actions.
Blaming individuals is a fruitless exercise. Not just because individual situations, and the factors that drive them, are complex, but also because the evidence around behaviour change is clear that the things that change vaccine hesitancy are often structural incentives (like mandates) (see here, here and here) and empathy. Facts however, well, they really don’t always have the impact one might think. Governments around Australia are trying to put in place the necessary systems in place to keep Australians safe, and the NRL is putting in its own measures. So the structures are being built. The Raiders need to play their part. They’ve shown the players empathy, not hectoring them, promising employment security regardless of what the NRL might do to their pay packet. From what I can tell there’s been no shaming or pressure on the players, just a willingness to engage them on what the ramifications of their actions will be, to ensure they’re informed. This is an appropriate response from the club.
It won’t guarantee a result they, and we, want, but it at least will keep the lines of communication open, and hopefully heads cool (or cooler than they were around the club during the 2021 season). I doubt it will solve the issue, but at least it will mean that the players will be fully informed on the ramifications of their actions, rather than be pitted in battle against the club and community. In the meantime the Raiders can see what they can do about winning without them. It’s the only way forward.