Kate Johnson's Medical Musings

Life through the eyes of a medical journalist

H1N1 – Looking After Number One?

hockeyWith H1N1 upon us, the vaccine scarce, and distribution sluggish, the true scope of this illness is finally presenting itself. The symptoms are selfishness, presumptuousness, delusions of grandeur and bad manners. More serious illness can come with dishonesty – and this presentation is becoming more prevalent. Decisions about who should have priority for a potentially life-saving vaccine should not be difficult. They are based on facts. In my opinion, these should be medical facts like pre-existing health, and known risk factors. But there’s also the argument that inherent value to society is a legitimate consideration. It is for this reason that healthcare workers have been encouraged to the front of the vaccination lines. But beyond the delivery of medical care at a time of medical crisis, there are many other people whose services might be considered essential by some. What about professional hockey players? This guest editorial from sports journalist Bob Babinski touches on the complexities of pandemic priorities.

Fanning the Flames with a Swine Flu Controversy: Skaters Jump the Queue Foregoing Transparency

By Bob Babinski

A senior staffer of Alberta Health Services has been fired . The Calgary Herald newspaper is receiving messages from hockey fans who say they’ll no longer support the Calgary Flames. And the government in Alberta continues to ask questions about how health department officials last week released coveted supplies of the H1N1 vaccine to inoculate Flames hockey players, their families, and other team personnel.

What arguments could you make to defend the decision to jump the queue?  Read on for my view.

To me, it all comes down to transparency. If the Flames had gone public with their PLAN to get inoculated. maybe (and I stress maybe) they could have garnered support for the early inoculation. Instead, they come across as sneaky cheaters – people taking advantage of their special status.

In most jurisdictions, the priority list looks similar. Health care providers get inoculated first. Then those who are pregnant and babies less than 6 months old. Next in line, people with underlying health problems. After that, everyone else, including healthy professional hockey players.

Is that where the mega celebrities of society (and that is what hockey players are in Canada) belong? Health care professionals are at the top of the list not because they are more vulnerable, but because they provide an invaluable, essential service to the community.

Could the Flames have argued that their team provides an essential service, even if not nearly to the same degree as the health care workers?  And would Albertans have bought that?

When CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada draws two million viewers on a Saturday night, the argument about the importance of professional hockey is self-evident.  The NHL is part of the daily discussion in this country, an important part of the national fabric. At the very least, it’s a blessed distraction in the throes of a disturbing pandemic that is still unfolding.

Last weekend, a Major Junior hockey game in New Brunswick was cancelled because the home team had too many players suffering from the flu. If that happened at the professional level, it’s hard to predict what the ripple effect would be. Already, in many parts of the country, there is evidence of H1N1 hysteria. I imagine it would increase to unpredictable levels if an NHL game was shut down. 

In October, the reaction to the unsettling H1N1 death of a 13-year-old boy who played hockey in the Toronto area was enormous. Many people have suggested it touched off a wave of panic. Imagine the reaction if the flu’s next victim is one of the country’s best known hockey players.

Never mind just the Albertans, but would you buy that argument?

Times of crisis call for difficult decisions, including how we put a value on one life over another. Some people in Alberta are complaining that a young baby could theoretically die because the Calgary Flames jumped the queue.

Is that what this argument should boil down to? If that’s the case, should we also be asking how many babies in lesser-developed countries are going to die because we spent our money on ourselves in this country? That’s a slippery slope.

Or should we be asking have we made the most reasonable decisions based on a wide variety of concerns? Keeping the national psyche up will be an important challenge in the next while, and the distraction of pro sports will play a role. Imagine, for a moment, what the impact would be if the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup was cancelled because of H1N1.

If the Flames had made that argument, would they have swayed anyone?

We like to complain that hockey players have become part of the rich elite, and are far-removed from the “everyman” image they once had. But there is a reason why hockey players get paid in the millions of dollars a year. There is a reason why families pay more than $400 on a Saturday night to attend an NHL game. There is a reason why millions are spent on upgraded TV packages so people can follow their favorite snipers. It’s because the spectacle the players provide has, in its own way, become an essential service in Canada.

Unfortunately, professional athletes and teams sometimes act as if they live in a world with its own rules and regulations. Even before the H1N1 crisis, it would have been reasonable to ask questions about how pro teams access the public health care system in Canada. Is it possible that some teams and athletes are already in the habit of calling in favors to fast-track injury treatment? If your brother had to wait a couple of months before getting knee surgery, how do you think the injured hockey player got the procedure done in a hospital operating room in a matter of a few days?

In the end, the most fundamental question raised by the Flames’ H1N1 controversy is about transparency.

We may be hockey rabid enough in this country that some people are ready to see their favorite stars like Jarome Iginla jump the queue. I don’t really know.

I just know that any chance for a sympathetic reaction was lost when someone decided to proceed without full disclosure. That raises questions about honor.  No one gets very far when they’ve lost their honor, and the good that should come from pro sport is severely diminished.

Bob Babinski is a Montreal-based sports reporter and producer. Read more of his blogs at www.good4sports.wordpress.com.

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November 5, 2009 - Posted by | H1N1

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