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Rafa Benitez sends ‘Stay Safe’ message from China as he explains his experiences during virus crisis

5 months ago
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It was back in February when we last heard anything from Rafa Benitez.

The former Newcastle boss finding himself with the Dalian Yifang squad in Spain as the virus situation got progressively worse back in China.

On a pre-season tour preparing for the Chinese Super League season that was scheduled to kick off in February. Rafa Benitez and his players found themselves extending their stay in Spain.

As things then eased in China but escalated in Europe, Rafa and his squad then eventually returned to China.

Rafa Benitez has now written (see below) about his experiences of dealing with the virus crisis on his own website.

An intriguing insight and valuable information for us all on the kind of challenges we will face in the UK

Rafa Benitez writing on his own personal site:

These are difficult times for everyone: personally, in health, work, in the economy, and in society in general. Also, in our much-loved football, which is my world and has also been gravely affected.

But I am going to go to what’s important, as we all probably know someone affected by this terrible pandemic, or we might even be affected within our own family and friends. Too many people have passed away, majorly centred on our elders, those who have given us everything that we now have to enjoy, our wellbeing, and especially, our life.

They’re not just numbers, they’re family and friends. For this, I want to use this time to reiterate the recognition that our elders deserve, and to express my deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who have passed.

Some time ago I read a phrase, I think by Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, which I use frequently and can be perfectly applied in this case: ‘it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’. Because of this we have to recover something that has been lost in this society and would maybe help to make better decisions when faced with any sort of problem; respect towards our elders, to those with more experience, with values and principles, which nowadays sometimes lack.

In my case I would talk about what I know, what I have seen and lived in Hong Kong and mainland China, which could help people to be better prepared when the second wave of this virus comes, or maybe with another in the future. So that you can understand how I see the issue, I attempt to see it in a global way so it can be easily understood.

The SARS virus spread through Asia in 2003 and that has helped countries such as China, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia to react potentially quicker and in a coordinated way that other countries when faced with COVID-19.

We began the first half of the pre-season with our team, Dalian Pro, in Xiamen (China) in mid-January. When we finished this first phase, China had already started to take measures to contain COVID-19. The sanitary measures which we all know now (wash your hands with soap and water, social distancing, taking temperatures, etc.), as well as the quarantining of population by regions to diminish the risk of contagion.

Before joining the team for the second part of the pre-season in Spain, I went to visit my family in Liverpool and already in that moment, when I left China at the end of January, I had to wear a mask, goggles, gloves and antibacterial gel, as recommended. When I arrived in England, I kept at certain distance with my family members and, as the knowledge of the spread of the virus continued to arrive, we rung my daughter who was in Italy to get her to come straight back to England. Thankfully, we managed to do this before any borders were closed.

At the beginning of February, my players were able to travel from China to Spain, just before the closing of borders and airports which seemed to be mandatory due to the rapid evolution of the pandemic. At the same time, I travelled from the UK to Marbella to begin this second part of the pre-season with my team.

Once again, the protocols of preventing the virus from the first moment were crucial to ensure there was no problem within the team. Later I will explain in detail what we did day to day.

I couldn’t see my family in Madrid due to the increasing cases of COVID-19 in the city and it was a risk for everyone around me, so I decided not to go, or to give permission to my players to go there. From Marbella we went to Alicante for some time, and after over a month in Spain, we returned to China. There we confirmed the differences between how to face the risk of contagion, all depending on personal experiences, and that’s what I would like to recount.

With the advantage of having many friends in Italy, and family in Spain as well as in England, whilst at the same time working in China, I think I can give a widened personal point of view on this problem and the response to it.

New Zealand, South Korea

If we have one thing in this period of quarantines and lockdown it’s time. I use some of this time to watch the tv channels of different countries, and I watched a channel from South Korea, learning how they have faced and continue to face this pandemic, as well as the reactions of countries such as New Zealand, who so far appear to have had success in controlling the virus to an extent. I think it is always wisest to take note of the most successful in order to learn.

We can analyse what they have done differently to countries with more problems have done when it came to controlling the virus, such as: very clear directions from the beginning, closing or limiting movement, putting everyone who arrived into the country in quarantine, quarantining the population before the number of those infected with the virus rose too high, mass testing from the beginning, and keeping up to date with those who had been infected and those they’d been in contact with to test them as soon as possible, controlling temperatures, masks, gloves, protective goggles, antibacterial gel, and washing hands with soap and water constantly whilst keeping social distances and disinfecting communal areas frequently.

They accept, out of solidarity, that the use of masks, for example, is more to protect others than themselves. From the arrival at the airports they take people’s temperature up to three times, in a transit zone as you leave. They disinfect seats, the walls, fountains at the airport, anything which could harbour the virus, they control temperature with thermography cameras before you enter buildings and they have a software app which monitors those who are infected. I must add, that at the time of the writing of the text, no member of the airport staff was infected.

The experts from those countries recognise that the initial testing, with the later monitoring of those infected, and the early lockdown, have been key to controlling the spread of the virus as well as giving more reaction time for the country’s health system.

Hong Kong and mainland China

I have read that some places use ultraviolet rays to disinfect bedrooms, operating rooms and even public buses, which are put in a sort of ‘disinfection tunnel’, leaving them ready in just a few minutes. However, I haven’t seen these things personally, so I will speak about the things I have personally seen in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

The protocols are quite clear and very similar to those used in other Eastern countries. Upon arrival I was put in quarantine, including a bracelet with a barcode which you activate and it then ‘monitors you’ during the 14 days in which you’re isolated. In this time, food and anything else you could require was left at your door and so you had no direct contact with any of the hotel staff.

After quarantine, when I have gone to some restaurants, they have temperature control as you enter and you have to disinfect your hands with antibacterial gel; in other restaurants they gave me a paper bag to put my mask inside; others had small curtains between individual tables, with the waiters always maintaining a certain distance and wearing masks.

When taking lifts or escalators you would frequently find someone disinfecting the buttons or the hand rests.

When leaving the restaurant, you would again disinfect your hands. If they can, they try to use little physical money, instead using a card or the famous WeChat on your phone, which they use to pay by scanning a barcode.

When we were in Spain, they told us that masks were only useful for those who had the virus so they wouldn’t spread it, but they insisted for us, from China, that we had to wear them all the time and maintain distance from those near us. Now masks are mandatory in many countries, confirming the lack of information that was had at the start.

One day, walking along the street in China, I saw a large queue of people (about 100 of them). I approached the front of the line and was shocked: they were giving out masks for free, about 50 per person. I thought of the difficulties there are in Europe to get these masks even to those in hospitals.

Our protocol with the team included taking temperatures twice a day, and disinfecting hands every time we had to come together to eat. We were in a separate area of the hotel to other guests and we weren’t allowed to leave the facilities.

Whilst we were in Spain where at the time there were few cases, in China the protocols were being followed in all the cities. They told me about one employee who had slight fever in one of the controls and so they have him under observation, disinfecting his office straightaway from top to bottom.

Obviously, they closed schools, shopping centres, gyms, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, and suspended all major events. Once the lockdown began to be lifted, the employees who went to work would go in as just one employee per department.

Then later, one would go on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a few weeks, then later down the line they would be able to go Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays too (for example). In some cases, they would alternate, one colleague would work from home for a week and his colleague would work in the office, then the next week they’d swap.

If it’s any use as an example of what a quarantine with a football team could look like, when we arrived in China, the first thing we did was give each player his own room, isolated. They called us to do a test of PCR and from that moment, neither us nor the staff who stayed with us all the time left our bedrooms for the next 14 days. The food was brought to us in the famous little Tupperware containers and in bags, with plastic cutlery, all of it disposable, and the employees always came to bring the food protected with gloves, masks, protective goggles and special suits.

Fortunately, no-one’s results came back positive, and when at the end of the 14 days everyone was tested again and the results were still negative, they give you a ‘green card’ so that you can show it at any establishment you go to in order to show that you don’t have the virus. This could be the reality for teams if and when competition is resumed, a lot of precautions, a lot of control, not only for the players, but for all the people who are in contact with them.

Once the quarantine is over, the use of masks is normal in China to move through the streets, antibacterial gel is everywhere, washing hands with soap and water is a constant thing and maintaining the set ‘social distancing’ is something that you adhere to without having to think twice. I must say, in hugely populated cities it isn’t easy, but most adults understand the rules that must be followed, it is more difficult for the youth (maybe because unlike the older generations they haven’t lived through similar situations, and they lack experience). This experience is something, which as I said at the start, often helps to get things right rather than get things wrong when it comes to making important decisions.

In sum, we must all obviously be conscious of the difficulties of the times we are living in and the return to normality will have to be done bit by bit, with responsibility and common sense, thinking of those we have near us as well as ourselves. Attempting where possible to avoid risks and to avoid risking those close to us.

Stay safe.

Rafa Benítez

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