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An Expert Explains: Why stronger bodies don’t imply better immunity against COVID-19

Are sportspersons' immunities a better shield against Covid-19? Here's what Dr Nikhil Latey, who has trained a bunch of Olympians over the years, has to say.

Written by Shivani Naik , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: March 21, 2020 2:35:39 pm
An Expert Explains: Why stronger bodies don't imply better immunity against coronavirus Kevin Durant is among the four Brooklyn Nets who have tested positive for the new coronavirus. (AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Till Kevin Durant turned up coronavirus positive and news of a 21-year-old football coach losing his life scrolled on timelines, a hoopster — not named here — remained under the false hope that as high-functioning, fit athletes, sportspersons were somehow not vulnerable to contract the Covid-19. Talk of higher immunity and a stronger body (better lung capacity) had lulled many into believing that the Coronavirus was something that struck only those who were very old or very young or with lungs compromised owing to various health ailments.

Dr Nikhil Latey, who has trained a bunch of Olympians over the years, says this false sense of invincibility common among sportspersons is “utter rubbish” in the face of the leveller virus. A bunch of footballers and now NBA stars have been affected, proving that fear of exposure even to the fittest of bodies, is very real. Dr Latey clears some doubts:

Are sportspersons’ immunities a better shield against Covid-19?

Utter nonsense. This sort of thinking is misguided. Training venues are not always hygienic, athletes and staff travel a lot and not everyone is obsessed with personal hygiene. But to be clear, there is no natural immunity against Covid-19. The human body has no clear idea yet, of how to deal with this. Of course, fit athletes will not suffer the worst of it. They might show fewer dire symptoms and even feel fine-ish. Which can make them even more dangerous carriers of the virus and put their families at risk. So even if they don’t end up on a ventilator, this is no time to boast about how strong and immune a sportsperson is. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone needs to take utmost precautions and follow protocol.

Are the contact sports the riskiest?

There are various complications — boxers and wrestlers also undergo crash weight losses which definitely impacts immunity, so they might not be as strong or hydrated as they think. Boxers wipe their sweat, their gum shields get handled by their corners to wash. Badminton courts are enclosed spaces and not the cleanest and there can be sweat on the floor. Spit flies in boxing. Shooters need to be very very careful about their equipment. And they need to start washing their inners far more regularly. While swimming pools have chlorine, you don’t know. For that sort of a virus, you’ll really need to up the chlorine levels which might cause discomfort to the swimmers.

An Expert Explains: Why stronger bodies don't imply better immunity against coronavirus Dr Nikhil Latey

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So, what can those who are training for the Olympics still do?

There’s no harm in running. And shadows. You have to be very careful about the equipment you use in the gym and ensure its disinfected and not used by multiple people. You can’t be touching others’ equipment. We need to decide what’s best way forward for those that have already qualified. In fact we need to isolate our qualifiers and not expose them to several people. So if Sindhu wants to train, it has to be just her, a coach, a couple of sparring partners and not a room full of people. In shooting, a maximum of 4 should train on a range, spaced wide apart between lanes. You can’t have a training hall with 40 kids. You have to reduce their man-to-man contact to absolutely minimum. Clean all gear with Sterillium and keep phones clean. Also best to wash hands with soap to clear nailheads and lines of the hand alongwith the alcohol-based sanitisers.

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What are the risks to sportspeople even if the infection might not lead to morbidity?

Look, they might not see the worst of it – and it might be just a fever and cough. But it can affect athletic performance big time. There’s four months for the Olympics – assuming it goes ahead on time – even losing a month can be the difference between a silver and a 4th place. So athletes need to be clear if they are not extremely careful there is every chance of them getting infected. It might be a mild condition. But don’t forget these are elite athletes. As an athlete, their entire life is about high performance. That can get blunted. For ordinary people like you or me, we can just rest it out sitting at home if it’s mild. For Olympic-bound athletes, this is about tiniest of margins and even one month lost is a big problem. So where possible, they should isolate and not take this easy. No felicitations or parties or Goodluck sendoffs.

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What does it mean for them being based in India and the progression of the infection?

As a country, all the over-reactions from the authorities are necessary. Because if this turns into an avalanche, our healthcare system doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it, since the best are struggling. So all the talk of slowing it down, flattening the curve, starving the virus off hosts. Trouble is we can’t see the endgame here. From the available literature, even if cases are down in China and Korea, it’s worrying in Iran, Italy and Spain. The incubation can be anything between 7-24 days so the 15-day quarantine might not be completely effective. It’s grown between 1.1 to 1.4 times, so basically, there’s more cases today than yesterday. Things can get real bad, real quickly. There’s uncertainty about Olympics. Once the vaccine is figured, Tokyo will look on track. So, this is a critical time for India. And athletes are no exception. So they need to keep calm, stay humble, maintain strict daily hygiene and not be stupid, thinking they are stronger than others.

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