Life Wellbeing Anti-vaxxer footballers and their wives: Cultural outliers in the age of COVID-19
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Anti-vaxxer footballers and their wives: Cultural outliers in the age of COVID-19

Gold Coast Titan Bryce Cartwright is one of the NRL players running headlong into a vaccination controversy. Photo: Getty/AAP
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If you enjoy a night at the circus, then news of a few NRL players refusing to have their flu shots will be a delight.

The fact that they do so with the megaphone support of their influencer wives – or in some cases, following the apparent word of their personal God – drives the situation deeper into soap opera.

Further, news that some of the players have struck out certain paragraphs in the NRL’s flu-shot waiver – clauses acknowledging they are putting their health at risk – is plumping up dumb behaviour into faux civil rights grandeur.

And it worked!

The NRL, despite the poor message it gives the wider community, has since buckled on the wording of the waiver.

In the age of COVID-19, where most of us are waiting anxiously for a vaccine to deliver us from a life in captivity, how should we regard the recalcitrance of these players?

Are they a risk to the wider community or a lame joke?

And should the government intervene with a “no jab, no play” order?

Dr Katie Atwell is an expert on mandatory vaccination policy. Photo: UWA

Dr Katie Attwell is senior lecturer and academic researcher at the University of Western Australia School of Social Sciences. She specialises in mandatory vaccination policy across Australia, Europe and the US, researching the tactics their governments use to motivate people to vaccinate.

Dr Atwell told The New Daily that more Australians were getting vaccinated against seasonal flu than in previous years.

We shouldn’t be too worried about what some NRL players and their wives are doing and saying,” she said.

Dr Atwell is concerned that the media could be giving too much air time to anti-vaxxer views that have ordinarily been rejected as part of any serious discussion about vaccination.

“A lot of people have done work over many years to stop this false balance that used to be given to vaccine hesitant and refusing people,” she said.

“We’ve moved on from the bad old days of having someone like that on a TV segment alongside a scientist.

We need to be careful in not creating controversy by giving air time to views held by a small number of people.

“The problem is, if people are following these celebrities for different reasons and find out that they are spruiking anti-vaccination messages, there is a risk that this influence becomes meaningful for certain audiences. It’s definitely something we have to watch out for.”

Dr Atwell said the roll-out of the flu vaccine was serving as “a trial run, a softening up among people who never got the flu vaccine before.”

“Now they’re willing to get it,” she said. “They’re acting on the knowledge that we need to avoid clogging up emergency departments, and to avoid frightening themselves into thinking they might have COVID-19.

COVID has attuned everybody to the fact that infectious disease can obviously devastate individuals, countries and economies.”

Dr Atwell said the NRL’s requirement players be vaccinated against the flu was a sign of “unprecedented times” because adults, outside of vulnerable health care settings, were not ordinarily mandated to be vaccinated.

“We have mandates in place for childhood vaccines that are well established,” she said.

“If your child isn’t vaccinated, you lose access to Centrelink support or childcare. People are not used to that reasoning being applied to influenza.

We’re used to a culture where people make this decision for themselves.”

The NRL, however, “has decided that this is what we need to do to protect our business model. Let’s not forget this is about money,” Dr Atwell said.

The coronavirus crisis has attuned everybody to the fact that infectious disease can obviously devastate individuals, countries, economies.

Professor Julie Leask says that coercion carries risks. Photo: University of Sydney

Professor Julie Leask is a social scientist and professor in the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Sydney. Her research focuses on risk communication, responding to vaccine hesitancy and refusal, and strengthening vaccination programs and policy.

Answering questions via email, Professor Leask told The New Daily that while it’s ideal to have as many players as possible vaccinated, “how you go about that is a practical and ethical question.”

She said: “Studies show that people are more likely to vaccinate if they believe it’s important for them and others, have the time, have reminders, have a recommendation from their nurse or doctor, have convenient access to the vaccine.

“Any sporting team should encourage vaccination by educating people on why it’s important, addressing questions with high quality information, (including on side-effects), and scheduling on-site vaccination.

Players should prompt each other. Leaders should strongly recommend it. Some – a handful – will refuse regardless.”

Her advice: “Focus on the fence sitters and willing, not the fixed decliners.”

Professor Leask said that many political leaders have simplified ideas about how to get people to vaccinate and see mandates as a panacea.

But coercion can lead to anger if enough people are hesitant,” she said.

“It is a last resort when risk is high, benefit is high and you need as many as possible on board – and when other strategies have failed.

“It would be wise to make a careful assessment of these factors in any football teams before jumping in with the big stick.”