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IPL 2021 Scrapped After Covid -19 Breaches the Bubble. But What is a Bio Bubble, Anyway?

This primer is based on the author’s personal experience inside the I-League bubble in Kolkata earlier this year. We acknowledge that football isn’t cricket and a lot has changed since then. We also acknowledge that among side effects of being in a bubble is Q&A sessions with yourself.
IPL 2021 bio bubble compared to the I-league bubble

A glimpse of the I-League bubble -- Sudeva Delhi FC players training inside their hotel rooms in Kolkata during the initial isolation period (Pic: Vaibhav Raghunandan).

What is a bio bubble?

Great let's end this story right here and now. A bio bubble (or a bio secure bubble) is essentially a protected environment created with the objective of ensuring Covid-19 doesn’t not permeate through. Conceptualised last year right at the onset of the pandemic, the bubble was a way to let the good people sitting at home in front of screens enjoy sport, while protecting sportspersons from the threat of the virus. Essentially, sports organisers commandeer specific areas essential for conducting an event (accommodation areas, food facilities, training grounds) and lock them down. If you’re in, you’re in. No getting out and coming back in. Think of the bubble as an island (Pitcairn is ideal) and those inside as Robinson Crusoe, while World War III rages on outside. You learn very little, see very little and feel very little. After a while, when inside a bubble, you start yearning for Wilson. Wait... that is a different marooned reference…

Sounds awful. Those inside the bubble must be mentally traumatised. 

Yes and no. Yes, it is traumatising to be stuck inside a closed space for most of the day with nothing to do but dream of getting out. But, it is also a lot of other things. Without disregarding mental health — a fact that many inside the bubble vaguely talk about — the fact of the matter is that sportspersons are essentially workers (not to be confused with essential workers). They go into the bubble begrudgingly, simply because they need to earn the money they get playing sport to support their families. 

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Conversely, it is an incredibly privileged space to be in too because, all things considered, the fact that they get to do what they love, and have access to open spaces at least once a day and are barricaded in what are mostly five star facilities is quite something. The bubble is tough. But, with humanitarian crises raging all around, it is a bit of a privilege.

What kind of protocols do they have in these bubbles? Is it like jail?

Depends on the organisers. Some organisers believe sportspersons are human beings with feelings and must not be barricaded and treated like sheep. Others believe they are sheep and must be treated exactly that way. The protocols essentially are very simple. RT-PCR tests are conducted for every member of every team once every two or three days. Upon logging of negatives, sports continues. 

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Players are put into hotels and teams are often allocated floors. The teams themselves allocate separate rooms for different needs (eg: a treatment room, an administrative staff room etc). Additionally teams are allocated times to access specific facilities such as the gym, the terrace, the conference room, the restaurant in these hotels.

Wait. A. Minute. These hotels are open right? And these are common spaces for all guests…

Right. Most of the time these spaces are blocked for certain times of the day, sanitised and made ready for teams to access. The hotel staff are instructed to not to allow guests in this area at these times. 

But the hotel staff themselves are outside the bubble!

Erm. Not all of them. The cleaning staff assigned to each floor, the security and restaurant staff are locked in the bubble.

Wait. What? These workers are locked in to just provide for a bunch of fellows who want to kick, throw or hit a ball around? That is ridiculous! What a waste of resources! And what more, they are separated from their families for what is perhaps very meagre pay. Outrageous!!!

Calm down you millennial rager. We told you this is an extremely privileged position to be in. But also consider this. Hotels that are turned into bubbles often enough manage to guarantee employment to their workers for a specific period of time and therefore guarantee jobs without loss of pay. 

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This specific industry is going through an incredible economic downfall and jobs have been cut by half in most places. These jobs are precious and #workerslivesmatter. It is very small but not insignificant.

So the hotel staff are barricaded inside. The teams are barricaded inside. No one gets out ever. 

The teams get out for training. They are allotted transport in the form of buses and they use these buses to go to training venues and on matchdays. 

Wait. So these drivers are also locked down? And the ground staff at the stadiums and training venues too?

No they aren’t. They are instructed to make no physical contact with the teams at all. Most ground staff are outside the bubble except some specific workers who will inevitably have contact with team personnel. Each team, furthermore is given some sort of liaison officer who negotiates everything in between. She/He is the bridge between those inside the bubble and those outside.

Like what?

Say you are training and shoot the ball out of the ground. The ball bounces around in a common area where people outside the bubble (gardeners, groundsmen, waste workers) are hanging about. In 2019 you’d have asked them to kick the ball back. Now if you ask them to do so one of two things happen. a) The LO jumps in and takes the ball from them, sanitises it, and throws it back on the field of play. b) they ignore you totally. You scream at the LO. he trudges out and carefully, avoiding all contact, goes to retrieve the ball. 

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Say you, a player has a package you want delivered, a sponsor’s product lets say. There is a member of the team specifically posted outside the bubble who is supposed to receive it, sanitise it and then transfer it inside the bubble (this person’s job also entails basically serving as a delivery boy for the team’s requirements. From medicines to pizzas). The LO then takes it into the bubble.    

Sounds a bit complicated.

Oh absolutely. A lot of things inside the bubble make no sense. Teams, for example are not allowed to interact with each other at all (again, this is dependent on the organiser). They may play each other, exchange hand shakes on the field of play. Chat away out there. Even end up sharing common areas if timings clash. But inside the bubble that is the hotel, they are not allowed to ‘hang out’. 

Reasons for this must have to do with things beyond Covid-19 surely. It must have to do with match fixing, tactical exchanges etc.

Erm. Do you think players in different teams aren’t friends? In a non-bubble world they meet each other on off days all the time. It is perfectly normal. Plus, professionalism is a thing. A non corrupt, professional will never do any of the above. The others don’t need anything more than cellphones.

What about entertainment?

Those that provide entertainment are seldom entertained. Okay maybe that’s too morose. Most players spend their downtime just the way normal human beings do… watching movies on the internet, listening to music or chatting with their partners.

No partners inside bubbles?

Depends on the organisers. In the case of the IPL, which is a travelling bubble, the partners are in the bubble too. In the case of the ISL, a fixed bubble, some teams made provisions for players to have their partners in the bubble. In the case of the I-League, the boys were on their own. 

So then, if all this is true it sounds very regimented and organised. How are players still testing positive? 

If there is one thing we have learnt over the past year it is that you cannot control everything no matter how hard you try. Human error is real. Despite the regimentation of the bubble, breaches aren’t out of the ordinary. 

They may be as simple as just a member of the team innocently and accidentally shaking hands with someone outside the bubble (a bus driver perhaps, because you want to complement him on the work done) and as discreet and stupid as someone meeting someone outside the bubble for a drink. Mentally exhausted of a bubble (something we have discussed earlier) human beings make mistakes that then have grave repercussions. Additionally for medical diagnosis(MRIs, CT scans etc)  players have to eventually be taken to hospitals outside the bubble. They are quarantined upon their return but still… You can’t ever tell where exactly the breach occurs, till it occurs. 

All this for what?

Just so that you, dear reader of the sports section of a publication can be entertained. This much debated distraction from everything all around, is perhaps unnecessary. 

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