Malachy Clerkin: GAA clubs shouldn’t shut down after one positive case

This is where Croke Park’s messaging needs to be stronger and louder than ever

Clubs nationwide were  shut  during the early months of the pandemic on national direction from GAA headquarters. Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

Clubs nationwide were shut during the early months of the pandemic on national direction from GAA headquarters. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Among the lessons of the past five months, it has become ever more obvious that messaging matters. Particularly in an emergency.

The old dictum that actions speak louder than words doesn’t quite work in every context. When the context is something as fluid as a pandemic about which global experts are finding out new things by the day, words can be the most important thing of all.

Especially words from on high. From day one, the only weapon health authorities around the world has had to go to war with has been the general populace. No drugs, no vaccine, no miracle cure. Just us, the people out in the world, tasked with finding a way to live in that world without infecting each other.

If there was ever any chance of that happening, people had to submit to being guided. Nobody wants to live the way we’re living now and if you’d suggested it back in January, you’d have been told what to do with yourself. But this is a different world and we can see the point of it all. We are, for the most part, a receptive audience. Tell us what to do. Tell us what works. We’ll do our bit.

But for us to buy into the necessary actions, the people in charge of the words need to be careful with their messaging. Whether that’s the World Health Organisation obfuscating around facemasks or the Government shilly-shallying over the Green List, it is never helpful to create confusion. There’s already more than enough of that to go around.

Considering the buffeting winds coming in from all sides, the GAA has put in a relatively sure-footed few months on the messaging front. When John Horan went on The Sunday Game in May and gravely conceded that he had his doubts over whether the games would return at all in 2020, he took shellfire from some quarters for being overly pessimistic.

But there had been 40 straight days of double-digit deaths from Covid-19 in the country at that point. Caution was entirely appropriate. The digs at him were unfair.

The games are back a few weeks now, a state of being that most of us presumed at one stage or another wasn’t going to be on the cards at all in 2020. And so the next problem on the GAA’s horizon is how to deal with positive cases. They are coming, they are happening, they are bound to increase as the weeks go by.

In last Saturday’s paper,I wrote about the week endured by the Old Leighlin club in Carlow in the wake of one of their players testing positive for Covid. As has become the norm across the country, they temporarily shut down operations as soon as they heard, as did a trio of challenge game opponents in Laois and Carlow. In the piece, I described Old Leighlin as having done everything correctly.

Club shutting

By lunchtime on Saturday, a member of the GAA’s Covid Advisory Group was onto me, making the point that I was wrong to use that phrase. They had gone over and above the GAA’s advice, which is to isolate the player and his close contacts and to otherwise proceed as normal. Nowhere has Croke Park suggested or advocated any club shutting everything down on discovery of a positive case.

This is an entirely accurate point and they were right to pull me up on it. The flipside is that a small rural club like Old Leighlin didn’t feel like it had any choice in the matter. The name of the player was everywhere in the locality within 24 hours and club members were being asked why they were going to the shops and not locked in their bedrooms, as if the whole club was contagious. In that situation, a club will try to protect its reputation. If that means going above and beyond the advice, so be it.

But the GAA has a very good reason for not wanting clubs to lock the gates every time there’s a new case and if you’re wondering what that is, you only had to listen to BBC Radio Ulster yesterday morning.

Introducing a segment on clubs that have done so, presenter Sarah Brett asked, “Is there are reason we seem to be seeing an increase in cases linked to GAA. And can games carry on if these clusters continue?”

Right there, you can see the GAA’s conundrum. A positive case is precisely that – one case. No GAA club tests positive for Covid. But when a club takes it upon itself to shut everything down, people will take their own meaning. Some will see it as a responsible club being cautious in respect of the community around it. Others will assume that there is more than one case to be cautious about and will start using phrases such as “cases linked to GAA”.

This is where Croke Park’s messaging needs to be stronger and louder than ever. Their stated advice is that clubs shouldn’t shut down on the back of a positive case but have you heard Tom Ryan or John Horan really pushing that message at any stage?

A concerted campaign reiterating this – as well as pointing out that there has been no evidence of the virus spreading during games or training sessions – would go a long way to giving people a better sense of the way forward.

What it would do above all is give clubs cover in their local community to keep their gates open when one of their members tests positive. It’s all very well Croke Park putting out general advice that they don’t have to shut up shop but they don’t have to live where the club people live. The best way to avoid the club having to take such a drastic step is to relieve them of the responsibility for it.

People will be led, as long as you are clear and honest and direct about what you want them to do. Making yourself heard loud and clear is part of that too.

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