Novak Djokovic’s rhetoric is dangerous. Australia presented a solution.

Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest tennis players of our time, is not competing at the prestigious Australian Open this January, temporarily putting an obstacle in his path to win a record 21 Grand Slam titles.  His absence is not a result of injury, illness or any other common issue that may plague the world of professional athletes. Instead, it is a result of his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

For a while, it was unclear whether Djokovic was unvaccinated. The tennis star had been notoriously tight-lipped regarding the issue. Regardless of his vaccination status, Djokovic’s actions continue on a long and tumultuous journey to obfuscate his vaccination status and subsequently sow more distrust into the public over vaccines. As early as April 2020, Djokovic stated that he was “opposed to vaccination,” which he later clarified by saying that he wanted “an option to choose what’s best for my body.” In addition to these statements, he claimed that he “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine” in order to continue playing professional tennis (BBC, 2022). 

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Djokovic had already made some dubious claims surrounding health and wellness. Between his self-developed test to prove his gluten intolerance—where he claimed that he was much weaker while holding a piece of bread in his fist—and his claims about the power of positive thinking in cleansing polluted water, Djokovic is no stranger to controversy surrounding science and public health (BBC, 2022). Although it is easy to write the tennis star off as just another tragically misinformed public citizen, Djokovic is no ordinary person. As one of the most respected tennis players of all time, with 20 Grand Slam titles to his name, his rhetoric holds the power to shape public opinion. Peddling scientifically inaccurate claims to his legions of fans and young supporters is an incredibly irresponsible decision because it cultivates distrust amongst the public against the scientific community. Misinforming his fanbase about matters as consequential as COVID-19 vaccines—which have been proven to be extremely safe and effective—may have devastating impacts in accelerating the progression of a disease that is already wreaking havoc across the globe (CDC, 2021). Vaccine hesitancy is already one of the most important forces prolonging the pandemic, and increasing distrust in the pillars of public health is counterproductive on Djokovic’s part.

The 34-year-old was met with a rude awakening when he flew into Australia for the Australian Open in early January. In a country with a 90 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate, it was bold of him to enter the country without a vaccine card or a legitimate exemption, and still expect to have public and legal support (NYT, 2022). When he landed in Australia on January 5, his visa was confiscated because he did not meet the COVID-19 vaccine policies of the country or the tournament. Over the next few days, he was shuttled to a quarantine hotel, and his visa was reinstated. News later revealed that he had tested positive in December 2021, which was the basis for the medical exemption that he requested. Finally, after much deliberation, the Australian federal court denied Djokovic’s appeal to stay in the country, deported him from the country and barred him from participating in the tournament. In the unfolding of these events, the Australian government demonstrated remarkable fortitude and integrity. Instead of bending their rules and allowing Djokovic to play because of his celebrity status, they remained steadfast in their policy, even in the face of backlash. In doing so, they promoted an environment in which public health takes top priority. This sets a conspicuous example for other countries who remain hesitant on the matter of vaccine mandates. 

While vaccines have greatly prevented serious illness and death in COVID-19 patients, only about 60 percent of the world is fully vaccinated, and the virus continues to cause serious illness and death amongst those who remain unvaccinated. In Western countries, where vaccines are widely and easily available, the time has passed for coddling the adults who refuse to take the vaccine for illegitimate reasons, including conspiracy theories, warped sense of freedom and scientific denial. With the surge of the Omicron variant, it is clear that action must be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the furthest extent possible. The spread of COVID-19 is a matter of life and death for those who remain unvaccinated, and to deny life to others on the basis of “personal freedom” is morally reprehensible. Solutions must be found to combat misinformation and encourage vaccination. In barring Djokovic from playing in the Australian Open, Australia sets a great example of what governments should do to encourage vaccination. Djokovic is not being stripped of any fundamental human rights, but he is being denied a privilege, one that he knew he would have if he were vaccinated. The tennis star made his decision when he chose to remain unvaccinated, and Australia responded with a choice of their own: valuing public health and protecting the lives of the most vulnerable.

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