Why Australia wants to make an example of Djokovic

The tennis star's detention is discourteous, but he is not without blame

Novak Djokovic's visa to Australia was revoked after border officials there questioned his medical exemption from Covid-19 vaccination. PA

“Rules are rules,” said Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, in a televised briefing on Thursday. Mr Morrison was seeking to clarify his government’s position over the surprise detention of Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic, who had flown into Melbourne earlier to defend his title at the Australian Open. Upon his arrival in Australia, Djokovic’s visa was revoked on the grounds that he was unvaccinated, and that the medical exemption he had obtained from the state of Victoria was issued improperly.

Lectures from officialdom on rules is something Australians are, by this stage of the pandemic, used to hearing. For the past two years, they have endured some of the strictest emergency measures on the planet. For much of that time, Australia’s border has been sealed off even to its own citizens, along with internal borders between the country’s states. Temporary lockdowns have become a frequent affair, sparked by the discovery of even a small handful of cases. While the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths have remained low as a result, the physical, mental and economic toll of the measures, which continued even as most citizens were vaccinated, has been stark.

At the same time, however, Australians have watched a host of international athletes, investors and celebrities arrive on their shores, drawn by the continuation of tournaments like the Australian Open, but also tax breaks offered by an Australian government keen to promote the country as a largely Covid-free business and leisure destination. Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Tom Hanks are just a few film stars who have found escape in Australia in recent months. The apparent double standard has angered many Australians, particularly those stranded abroad.

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Australians watched a host of celebrities arrive on their shores, even as some of their fellow citizens remained stranded abroad

It is little wonder that Mr Morrison has sought an opportunity to show the public that rules are not only rules, but that they really do apply to everyone. In Djokovic’s case, he has found it. Not only did the tennis star’s exemption provoke the ire of Australians, 90 per cent of whom have now received two vaccine shots, but personal views opposing vaccines in general have not helped. Mr Morrison has said that Djokovic’s public statements on vaccines played a role in drawing authorities’ attention, leading Australia’s border officers to question his medical exemption.

While critics claim that Mr Morrison’s sudden tough stance is more in the interests of politics than public health, there is little doubt that the anti-vaccination movement is a significant threat to the latter, and that its dangers have been made worse by the support of public figures such as Djokovic. The rollercoaster of administrative decisions behind the tennis player’s exemption and visa being granted only to be revoked demonstrates both ineptitude and a lack of courtesy, but the final outcome – the fair enforcement of health rules – is the right one, for the sake of public safety and the public’s confidence in vaccination efforts.

Djokovic’s rival, Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal, who is also in Melbourne for the tournament, probably summed it up best, when he said he understood Australians’ frustrations with Djokovic’s exemption. “The only clear thing for me is that if you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open,” he said. “After a lot of people have been dying for two years, my feeling is the vaccine is the only way to stop the pandemic.”

Published: January 6th 2022, 12:49 PM