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10 January 2022

Novak Djokovic and why the world is turning on anti-vaxxers

The tennis star has won his battle in Australia, but patience with the unvaccinated is running out.

By Megan Gibson

Novak Djokovic flew to Australia for a competition on the court and found himself in a battle at the border. After border police at Melbourne’s international airport detained Djokovic, the world’s number-one-ranked men’s tennis player, as he attempted to enter the country on 5 January, he spent the following five nights in a detention hotel. It was only on 10 January that an Australian judge determined the tennis champ was able to enter the country legally.

Djokovic, who is notorious for his scepticism of Covid-19 vaccines, had travelled to the country from Dubai to defend his title at the Australian Open. Though Australia has had some of the tightest border restrictions throughout the pandemic, Djokovic had been granted an entry visa on the grounds that he was exempt from vaccine requirements; two medical panels, organised by Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open, and the state of Victoria, signed off on the exemption.

Yet as public and political anger swelled over the exemption, in a country that has weathered some of world’s longest lockdowns, officials had blocked Djokovic’s entry on the grounds that “Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled.”

While crowds of supporters protested outside his hotel over the course of the weekend, Australian officials publicly took a firm stance on the issue. “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, tweeted. “No one is above these rules.”

A judge has determined that Djokovic, with his vaccination exemption, was acting within the rules. But this battle is likely to be a harbinger of a larger fight by governments against those who choose to remain unvaccinated. It’s not just Australia that is enforcing increasingly strict measures: across much of the West, politicians and the majority of citizens seem to have run out of patience with so-called anti-vaxxers.

As my colleague Ido Vock wrote on 5 January, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron – who was among the first to introduce restrictions on the unvaccinated for access to venues such as cinemas and theatres – has ratcheted up the rhetoric, vowing in a newspaper interview to “piss off” those that are still refusing the vaccine. His comments attracted plenty of backlash but among his supporters, the president was declaring a welcome war.

[See also: Emmanuel Macron’s vow to “piss off” the unvaccinated won’t convince many – but that’s not the point]

Meanwhile, more nations and regions are tightening their own restrictions on those who haven’t been vaccinated. The number of countries introducing vaccine passes for access to restaurants, cinemas and theatres is swelling. The Canadian province of Quebec has announced that from 18 January, the sale of alcohol and cannabis (which is legal in Canada) will be restricted to those who have a vaccine passport.

Then there are the countries that are doing away with carrots in favour of the stick. Singapore announced in November that those who choose to eschew the vaccine will no longer have their Covid-19 medical fees paid for if they fall ill. Austria was the first nation to impose a lockdown on the unvaccinated and it plans to make vaccinations mandatory from next month, with hefty fines for those who don’t comply. While Germany is considering similar measures, Italy announced on 5 January that all citizens over the age of 50 will be legally required to take the vaccine (vaccine mandates are already in place for Italian teachers and healthcare workers). And in November, Greece also announced monthly fines of €100 for those 60 and over who refuse to be vaccinated.

Of course, these new measures haven’t gone down well with those staunchly opposed to vaccines. Protests against restrictions for the unvaccinated have broken out in many cities, including in the UK, a country that has relatively few restrictions compared with many other European nations. The president of Serbia – the country from which Djokovic hails, and which has some of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe – even waded into the Australian border controversy, issuing a public statement in support of Djokovic, saying that the nation was “doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately”.

There are a number of health and social science experts who are openly critical of increasing restrictive measures by the state, arguing that such rules do little to convince those refusing to be vaccinated. From a public health standpoint, they argue, this backlash on the unvaccinated isn’t going to convince the holdouts. The World Health Organisation has also said that mandatory vaccinations should be a “last resort”. There are also thorny ethical questions involved over making vaccinations compulsory.

From a political standpoint, however, taking a harsh stand could be an increasingly popular move for state leaders. As many nations, particularly in Europe, have learned the hard way, a complacent approach to large numbers of vaccine sceptics has translated into buckling healthcare systems and wider restrictions on entire populations. Though they are noisy and occasionally violent, those protesting vaccine restrictions such as passports are in the minority. A YouGov survey in November found that the majority of Europeans, Australians and even Americans are in favour of Covid passports.

As Omicron continues its highly infectious sweep across the world and positive case numbers climb, the number of people who support harsher consequences for those choosing to remain unvaccinated – and therefore prolonging the pandemic – is likely to increase as well.

[See also: Does Novak Djokovic deserve any sympathy?]

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