I did not envisage writing this piece five months ago. Far from it actually. At the time, India was recording more than 90,000 COVID-19 cases on an average, per day. It had taken the country 170 days to reach the first million. That figure was being hit on a biweekly basis now.
As a BBC article at the time noted, “Infection is surging through the country in a ‘step-ladder spiral”. And yet, workplaces, public transport, restaurants and gyms were opening up in a few locations to aid the bruised and battered economy that the pandemic was leaving in its wake.
With a testing rate that was one of the worst in the world, many epidemiologists suggested that the actual number of cases was in fact much higher than what was being reported. Further, as the festive months of October and November were around the corner, there appeared to be little cause for optimism.
Fast forward to February and the number of cases on a daily average stands at around 12,000. Numerous empty beds are being reported in COVID wards and, by multiple accounts, the testing across the country has actually intensified. And yet, while many countries have battled the second, third and fourth waves of the virus over the past few months, India has managed to stay relatively immune.
“COVID numbers seem to have crashed in our hospital and many other places in India, and we were also just as stumped by the phenomenon. I don’t know how or why it happened, but COVID is no longer very prevalent” said Neha Arora, an ophthalmologist working in Chennai.
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A variety of reasons have been suggested for this, ranging from climate and pre-existing immunity for a largely young demographic and herd immunity. In a report at the end of January 2021, the Reserve Bank of India even proposed some cheer of its own. Referring to the COVID-19 curve in the country, a statement read: ‘Since mid-September, India has bent it like Beckham’.
It is in this much improved healthcare situation that the government and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) have allowed 50% of the M.A Chidambaram stadium in Chennai to be filled with crowds for the second test between India and England. The third and fourth contests in Ahmedabad are anticipated to be full houses.
To the outsider, this might seem like a step too far too soon, a decision that might potentially undo months of good work. After all, the England Cricket Board were largely against this idea and have only recently warmed to it after assurances from the Indian authorities. Even so, communication between the authorities and spectators has proved inadequate so far, as hoards of crowds gathered outside the stadium to collect their tickets earlier in the day, ignoring social distancing norms. The tickets were actually sold online in their entirety.
Insane crowd at Chepauk for the retrieval of physical tickets. Friends standing in queue for the last couple of hours & the crowd hasn’t moved an inch. Edho Thala-Thalapathy padam FDFS level crowd. #KnowledgeableChennaiCrowd at work. #Chepauk #INDvsENG pic.twitter.com/1e6p7ehOf6
— Srini Mama (@SriniMaama16) February 11, 2021
However, the prevailing mood is still one of optimism, as Srinath Balakrishnan, a doctor working in Chennai points out:
“It would make sense to advocate for a stance against [opening the stadium] if a lot of other places are also closed. Considering the fact that this is a stadium, so it is outdoors and there will be ventilation, this is not as significant a risk,” he said.
Even still, one might wonder if air-tight precautions against the spread of the virus can be implemented and enforced in such a short space of time. After all, the permission to do so from the BCCI arrived just a couple of days before the first test, sending the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) staff into frenzied preparation. However, the feeling amongst the TNCA is that they have been equal to the challenge. Speaking to the Sports Gazette on the matter, the secretary of the TNCA, Shri R.S. Ramasaamy stated:
“There are 17 entrances to the stadium so we are going to man all 17 with people with hand sanitizers and temperature checks. We make sure that everybody who enters wears a mask. We have medical kiosks all around. We have an isolation room. And apart from all this we have 4 ambulances placed around the ground. We have made sure that social distancing is maintained – Alternate seats have been given. We are also advising crowds about the protocols to be followed. Normally during the games, we have security from the Chennai City Police and that continues for this also. Despite having only half the crowd, we are still going ahead with all the security arrangements”.
Around 14,000 spectators are expected to turn up for the game tomorrow . An ambitious vaccination campaign aiming to inoculate 300 million Indians by the end of August is also now underway. It appears to be the hope of the Indian authorities that the stage has been set to accelerate on a road to normality, with sport as the fuel. And yet, Dr. Srinath coupled his optimism with caution in equal measure.
“I hope [the decision] doesn’t end up being a disaster that people learn from. I think it is important to take the necessary precautions, but there is not much else that you can say. Then it is down to the people to follow them,” he concluded.
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The presence of supporters in the stadium will certainly serve to motivate the Indian players in their task of overturning a 1-0 deficit in the four match test series. However, on an equally important level, a conscientious attitude from the fans along with a significant effort from the authorities to enforce the health and safety protocol will be required for this occasion to be remembered for all the right reasons.
The second test between India and England starts at 04:00 UK time on 13th Feb and will be shown live on Channel 4.