It’s November, the World Series is done, which means true baseball fans can …
a) watch football.
b) catch up on “The Squid Game” on Netflix.
c) obsess about all the off-season trades and free agents signings in what’s historically known as “the hot stove league.”
Trick question! True baseball fans know the real answer is d) turn your attention toward the Australian Baseball League.
With the seasons reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia is now enjoying spring and, as we all know, spring means baseball. Baseball isn’t the main sport Down Under – that might be Australian Rules Football, followed by cricket, tennis and golf – but baseball does have a long history in the land of kangaroos. The first reports of baseball in Australia date from 1857, imported by Americans who followed one gold rush after another until they wound up in Melbourne, which for a time was said to be the richest city in the world.
The current iteration of the Australian Baseball League was founded by our own Major League Baseball and still receives financial support from the same. It effectively functions as a kind of minor league for MLB, with some teams assigning key prospects there to get extra playing time during our winter – their summer. Five years ago, an outfielder for the Melbourne Aces was a young Venezeulan named Ronald Acuña Jr. Today he is a star player for the world champion Atlanta Braves (although he was hurt and didn’t play in the series).
So, yes, normally this time of year true baseball fans would start following the Australian teams, whose players are a mix of MLB prospects, homegrown Aussie talent and the occasional washed-up big leaguer hoping for one last hurrah. In 2020, the Sydney Blue Sox signed former World Series MVP Manny Ramirez, who at the time was 48 years old. He wound up never playing in a game.
This year, though, those fans will be disappointed. There is no Australian Baseball League this spring, summer, winter, whatever it is. The 2021-22 season has been canceled, yet another victim of COVID-19.
By now, we’re all far too accustomed to things being canceled due to COVID – high school sports seasons, concerts, festivals, sometimes even church. What makes the cancellation of the Australian Baseball League unusual – and noteworthy for those of us here in Virginia – is this: Australia isn’t being overrun by COVID. On the contrary, Australia has some of the lowest infection rates in the world – and some of the highest vaccination rates. However, Australia also takes the pandemic very seriously and has some of the toughest anti-virus measures in the world. Perhaps those strong rules and low infection rates are related? I’ll let you connect those two dots if you wish but here’s some more context for you: Australia’s stringent anti-virus response is playing out under a conservative government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison isn’t simply right-of-center, he’s an evangelical Christian, which is unusual in Australia and which drew comparisons with Donald Trump (not necessarily favorable ones) when he was running (and obviously winning).
The point is this: Australia hasn’t politicized the virus the way we Americans have. Australia has also had far more success, both against the virus and with vaccinations. Perhaps there are some lessons we might learn here?
Any good sports story includes statistics. So does any good story about the virus, so let’s start with the numbers.
Australia has a cumulative infection rate of 712 cases per 100,000 people – the standard apples-to-apples comparison. That’s one of the lowest rates in the world.
The cumulative United States rate, by contrast, is 13,955 cases per 100,000 people – one of the highest in the world.
Put another way, the American rate is 19.5 times higher than the Australian one.
Not surprisingly, our death rate is a lot higher, too – 226.17 per 100,000 versus 7.17. Americans are 31.5 times more likely to die from COVID than Australians are. And yet we have a congressman – Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County – who told high school students in Rappahannock County that they should defy the rules and take off their masks. Perhaps he should be more properly styled the death wish congressman. But back to numbers …
No, wait, here are some relevant numbers: The cumulative case rate in Rappahannock County is 8,246 per 100,000, lower than the national rate but still 11.5 times higher than in Australia. The death rate in Rappahannock County is 68.9 per 100,000. Again, definitely better than our national average but still almost 10 times higher than what Australians have managed. So why is it, exactly, that the congressman is urging students to do things that would inevitably drive those rates higher?
Now, back to numbers:
Over the past week, Australia has been running 5.5 new infections per 100,000. In the United States, the rate is 22 per 100,000. In much of Southwest Virginia, the rate is well over 200 per 100,000 and, in some places, well over 300 per 100,000, with Wise County at 420 and Buena Vista topping out at 602. And these rates are actually going down in most places, except for swaths of Southwest Virginia where they continue to rise. This is how out of sync we are with the rest of the world.
Australians, meanwhile, are far more likely to get vaccinated than Americans. The least-vaccinated part of Australia is the state of Western Australia (Perth is the big city there). In Western Australia, 81.03% have had at least one dose and 67.37% are fully vaccinated. Keep in mind, that’s the least vaccinated area. The most vaccinated part of Australia is their capital territory around Canberra – their equivalent of the District of Columbia. The rate there is 99.79% with at least one dose and 95.45% fully vaccinated. Because the capital territory is so small, let’s set those incredible rates aside and pick a “real” Australian state. The most vaccinated of those is New South Wales (the state where Sydney and the famous opera house are). In New South Wales, 93.97% have had at least one dose and 90.12% are fully vaccinated.
Even the lowest numbers in Australia are so high as to boggle our American minds.
The Australian stats, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, measure the adult population, so that’s what we’ll use for our comparison. In Virginia, the most vaccinated locality is now Northampton County on the Eastern Shore (which puts the lie to those who contend there’s an urban-rural divide). In Northampton, 87.7% of adults have had at least one dose, and 81.9% are fully vaccinated. That would place Northampton County better than Western Australia but slightly behind the Australian state of Victoria, around Melbourne, the second most vaccinated Australian state. Even Western Australia, with its “low” vaccination rates, would be considered highly vaccinated by our standards. If it were an American state, it would be our sixth most vaccinated.
Virginia ranks 10th, its numbers pulled up by Northern Virginia and pulled down by Southwest and Southside. Our least-vaccinated localities would horrify Australians. Two counties qualify as Virginia’s least-vaccinated locality, depending on how you want to measure it. In Carroll County, 47% of adults have had one dose and 42.6% are fully vaccinated. Lee County has a slightly higher percentage of adults with one dose — 47.7% — but a slightly lower percentage who are fully vaccinated — 42.5%. In other words, the least-vaccinated state in Australia is twice as vaccinated as the least-vaccinated localities in Virginia. Or here’s another measure: Those vaccination rates in Carroll County and Lee County put them on a par with Kazakhstan and Paraguay. Is that really where they want to be?
America’s standing in the world depends, in part, on our president and the policies he is following. But our standing in the world also depends on all of us, and all our unvaccinated people are not helping us make the case for being the greatest nation in the world. And yet in the recent election, we had anti-mask candidates running for school boards – in Bedford County, Botetourt County, Franklin County and elsewhere – billing themselves as “patriots.” That’s a perversion of the term. But back to facts …
Even though Australia has such a low (and dropping) infection rate, and such a high (and rising) vaccination rate, Australia continues to institute rules that would be unthinkable here – and those are what derailed the Australian baseball season.
It wasn’t simply the difficulty of importing players; they could simply sit in quarantine for a while if they really wanted to play. It was the travel restrictions that Australia continues to impose. At various points in the pandemic, Australia has shut down traffic between states if one of them saw virus rates start to rise. The prospect of such travel bans made it hard for ABL teams to embark on a season. And then there are other rules, which didn’t necessarily factor into the league’s decision, but which are useful for us to take into account.
In Victoria, you have to present proof of vaccination “to enter most businesses,” according to a government website – the controversial “vaccine passport.” If you live in New South Wales and are not fully vaccinated, you can’t go to the gym. Or swim in a public swimming pool. Or go to a stadium or a theme park or a zoo. If you’re not fully vaccinated, you can only gather with one other person for any kind of outdoor gathering such as a picnic. In South Australia, a private function with more than 50 people (up to the cap of 150) requires an independent “COVID Marshal” to oversee protocols. In Queensland, a conservative, coal-mining state that is often described as the Texas of Australia, the government requires people to wear masks when they’re outdoors around people or at the grocery store (along with a long list of other places). Queensland, a state with a population of more than 5 million people, also recorded just two new infections on Thursday, enough to put the Brisbane Bandits out of action for the season. South Australia (home to Adelaide and the Adelaide Giants), Western Australia (home to Perth and the Perth Heat) and Tasmania (alas no team there) haven’t recorded any new infections in the past week. Victoria (home to the Melbourne Aces) has had an outbreak, though, with 2,157 new cases in the past week. No wonder Australians want to shut off travel with Victoria.
In many Australian states, the restrictions are tied to vaccination rates – with the promise that all restrictions will be lifted once the state hits certain targets. Victoria ended 77 days of lockdowns this fall (spring to them) when the state hit 70% vaccinated, although other restrictions continue. In Western Australia, the target rate is 90% of those 12 and over being fully vaccinated. In New South Wales, the rate is 95%. 95%! New South Wales, by the way, is currently under a conservative administration – with a conservative state premier (the equivalent of a governor). So is South Australia, which requires those “COVID Marshals.” Imagine some conservative state government in the United States saying it won’t lift virus restrictions until there’s a 95% vaccination rate.
Now I’m not suggesting we should adopt such draconian rules. But I am suggesting that all of these people upset about having to wear a simple piece of cloth across their face to protect their fellow citizens are many things, but they’re definitely not “patriots.”