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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Explained: How safe is it to swim? Behind India’s reluctance to reopen pools

Given the inability to enforce strict social distancing on land, authorities in India have been reluctant to open pools for amateur swimmers, whose numbers will need to be severely restricted.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Updated: July 26, 2020 8:30:00 am
covid-19, coronavirus covid-19 swimming, is swimming safe, swimming covid-19, swimming coronavirus, india swimming coronavirus, express explained Chlorine can disinfect the water, but the worry is about the number of swimmers. (Express photo: Kamleshwar Singh/File photo)

While swimming in itself is seen as the safest sport with its virus-killing chlorine cover, getting into the pool and back is fraught with risks. Given the inability to enforce strict social distancing on land, authorities in India have been reluctant to open pools for amateur swimmers, whose numbers will need to be severely restricted.

Is it safe to swim in the pool?

Swimming on its own might be safe given you will be immersed in chlorine. However, given how crowded public pools get and the absence of discipline during preferred batch timings, it will be near impossible to enforce social distancing and hand hygiene at all times. “The virus doesn’t respect borders,” said Dr Chandrakant Pandav, former head of community disease at AIIMS. “There is no evidence that the virus spreads in water, but given transmission happens through the nose and water, and enforcing 100% protocol can’t be guaranteed, we shouldn’t be taking a risk.”

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Can chlorine secure the pool?

The World Health Organization says, “swimming in a well-maintained, properly chlorinated pool is safe.” USA Swimming, the governing body in America, has mandated 2.0 ppm chlorine in pools. That level of chlorine will kill the virus, but hiking it even to the permissible 3 ppm can cause irritation on the skin and in the eyes, and harm the stomach lining if water is consumed.

Dr Pandav said chlorine isn’t a one-stop solution. “You have to ask: how well is the chlorination done? Well-chlorinated means ensuring the powder/gaseous chlorine is working efficiently in the water and the concentration percentage is maintained at all times, because it deteriorates. The disinfecting effect wears off, and can you guarantee 2% is maintained at all times?”

What other measures are recommended?

US guidelines limit the capacity to 27 in a short-distance (25-yard) pool and 60 in an Olympic-sized 50 m pool for recreational swimmers. Each lane — usually 6 in the shorter and 10 in the longer pools — need to be 8 feet wide.

When the UK opens its pools, it is looking at restricting swimming to the clockwise direction and merging two lanes into one. It has advised constant supervision to exclude those feeling ill, handwashing, and avoiding change rooms. Australian guidelines specify only one swimmer per lane; the Indian recommendations include temperature checks.

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What are the problems in resuming swimming in India?

Although the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has asked for recommendations to prepare SOPs, state government authorities have the final word on pools in their jurisdiction. Elite swimmers expect pools to open no sooner than the fourth Unlock phase (Unlock 2.0 that extends until July 31 mandates that pools stay closed).

As uncertainty persists, coaches, cleaners and lifeguards are struggling with salaries and leases on the line. The catch: Safety demands limiting the number of recreational swimmers, and that limited number will not offset maintenance expenses. Elite swimmers have demanded they be prioritised.

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What is the situation elsewhere?

Before cases started climbing again last week, Australia and Singapore had looked on track to reopen their pools and increase the numbers gradually. However, Australia waited until there were zero new cases — and the ratio of Australian to Indians in a recreational pool is 1:3.

Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam, popular training bases in Asia, have taken tentative steps. “While recreational swimming looks highly unlikely, we need elite swimmers to start training,” said Bengaluru-based coach Nihar Amin. “We’ve spent our entire lives protecting swimmers’ health minutely. We know the value of following rules, he said, urging for resumption for elite swimmers in 50 m x 25 m pools, with a maximum 10 swimmers who can maintain 8 feet distance. Most international meets have been moved by a year. though the American season may kick off by November.”

What are the risk areas?

Even 10-15 at a time in different lanes are seen as a risk, as are taking a break along the walls, and using the blocks and change rooms. “We don’t just swim and go home. We’ll drink water, there’ll be some place where we keep our bags, and it’s tough to maintain 10 ft distance that I personally think might be safe at all times,” said international swimmer Srihari Nataraj.

“Go solo. Don’t play polo,” Dr Pandav said, urging for one swimmer per dedicated pool for elite Olympic-bound swimmers chasing A qualification standards.

Why is India reluctant to resume?

Neither SAI nor the Sports Ministry has offered clarity. Some elite swimmers say they are ginger about resuming training without failsafe guarantees and would rather train abroad, where regulations are drawn up by experienced planners. SAI has an agreement with Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and could explore that option for elite swimmers. However, no one is willing to risk reopening for recreational swimmers who might throng public pools.

Dr Ashok Ahuja, former department head (Sports Medicine) at SAI, said reopening is a bad idea. “I don’t think pools are safe. It’s a new virus and the entire nature of its spread through water with body secretions like saliva and sweat despite chlorine disinfection is not proven. From sports medicine point of view, we should not let pools open… Let’s wait till December for recreational swimmers.”

For the competitive lot, Dr Ahuja recommends only one swimmer at a time, at staggered times. “Water will need to be recirculated and disinfected regularly. And swimmers will need to be tested often, all of which is very expensive even if we have a small bunch.”

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