Bureaucracy and blunders – illnesses for which there are no shots

Malaysian Rachel Arnold (right) returning a shot while playing against compatriot Low Wee Wern during the women's final match of SRAM 39th Malaysian Open at National Squash Centre in Bukit Jalil yesterday. IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/ The Star. September 29,2019.

YOU have trained hard for years. Filled all the documents. And made all the logistic arrangements – transport, hotel, food, everything.

And despite fears of the pandemic, you brave yourself and head to the airport for that international tournament to bring glory to the country.

Then comes the hammer blow. You can’t leave the country, says the guy at the airport.

Why? A lockdown? A raging pandemic? The airports are closed?

No, it’s because you don’t have a polio vaccination certificate.

Laughable? No, because this is exactly what happened to four squash players - Low Wee Wern, Rachel Arnold, Aifa Azman and Ivan Yuen at 2am on Monday.

They had been so excited about competing in the ongoing El Gouna International Squash in Cairo - their first overseas tournament in more than a year - but they had the shock of their lives when they were told that they did not have a polio vaccination cert.

All four had been vaccinated for Covid-19 but that was not what the guys at the airport asked for.

It seems Egypt had been demanding polio vaccination certs from four countries - Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines. But since March, they have added Malaysia to the list.

The most senior and experienced player, the 30-year-old national No. 1 Wee Wern, just refused to give up.

Frantically, she called up the Professional Squash Association (PSA) in England, the tournament organisers in Cairo, and national coach Andrew Cross in Kuala Lumpur, who fortunately was awake at that hour.

None of them were aware of the new ruling.

The officials at the counter were nice as they understood that these were dedicated national athletes and not a group of people who were on a vacation trip but there was nothing they could do.

There was only one way out – the Malaysia’s Health Ministry had to write to Egypt asking for an exemption and that could take days. The tournament started on Thursday.

Wee Wern quickly postponed the flight to the next day as to give them extra hours to find a way out of the situation and get in touch with all the relevant parties – Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM), National Sports Council (NSC), Malaysia Immigration and etc.

But later, Wee Wern and Co found out that they had been in a losing battle from the start. Even if they had taken a polio shot the next day, it would not have been valid.

According to the Malaysian embassy in Cairo, a visitor from Malaysia must take the shot four weeks to 12 months before arriving in Egypt. It doesn’t matter that, like all Malaysians, they had had their polio shots as infants.

My heart goes out to these athletes for the ordeal that they went through, and that they had to miss out on an event that they had been waiting so long for.

I’m sure many can relate to what these athletes have gone through. Paperwork can overwhelm us. Sometimes, we are just caught in a situation where we have no control of.

Who could have avoided this blunder? Could Egypt have made an exemption? Shouldn’t the Malaysian government know about this ruling?

Or is it just a plain oversight? In the midst of the chaos amid the Covid-19 pandemic, were they just unable to keep up with all the instructions and changing rules.

It’s just unfortunate that this has happened despite all the good efforts made by all – SRAM, NSC and the Malaysian government – to give these players an opportunity to play competitive squash.

There is one positive that we can take from this unfortunate experience though – that our players are made of sterner stuff.

Wee Wern and Co showed they were a resilient bunch. They tried every avenue to find a solution to their situation – and that kind of attitude will take them far in their sporting career – for sure.

* The writer remembers her not-so-smooth journey to Cuba with the Sports Ministry many years back for a conference. Despite having visas, the team were stopped at every transit point. After a few calls and long wait, they allowed us to board the flight. Weird travel days, still is.

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