Now playing on center court: Novax v. Dr. King
Beyond the Curve: Dr. Peter Lurie's COVID-19 blog
My wife likes to say that the only thing I enjoy more than sports is an honest-to-goodness sports scandal. But now, in the debacle that is the tennis star Novak Djokovic’s effort to flout the rules to play in the Australian Open, we’ve hit my trifecta: sports plus scandal plus public health.
As has been widely reported, Djokovic is a fully fledged anti-vaxxer. Early in the pandemic, he hosted a tennis tournament in Croatia in a public nose-thumbing at COVID-19 prevention requirements, infecting at least three other players and his wife. But that hasn’t stopped him. Even as billions around the world enjoy the benefits of the jabs—including against severe illness due to Omicron – Djokovic demurred. But his anti-science views ran flush into a formidable barrier. Australia, a country that until recently had evaded the worst of the pandemic by implementing a string of severe public health measures, precludes the entry of unvaccinated people unless they have an exemption.
Djokovic was told by Tennis Australia that he had just such an exemption—in the form of a recent COVID-19 infection. (How ironic—his passport to playing in the tournament would actually be his failure to protect himself by getting vaccinated.) So he pitched up in Melbourne only to be told that prior infection did not qualify for an exemption, and was promptly escorted to a detention center, where he whined about the living conditions. Human rights activists were eager to point out that refugees seeking entry to Australia had been forced to live under precisely those conditions, to little public outcry.
Eventually he secured release from the center on a technicality and now awaits the result of his appeal of Friday’s decision by the Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke that he should be deported – thus depriving him of the opportunity to win a record-setting 21st Grand Slam title. Worse, in his absence, Rafael Nadal, who, like upwards of 90 percent of tennis pros, is actually vaccinated, could win the tournament and break the record instead.
Meanwhile, evidence emerged that Djokovic had recently travelled from Barcelona to Serbia and photos surfaced of an unmasked Djokovic in Belgrade with a French journalist who was interviewing him but not informed of the claimed COVID-19 infection. And it transpired that Djokovic’s immigration form had stated that he had no recent travel, when social media attested otherwise.
Look, I firmly believe that vaccination is both personally protective and an obligation to protect those around us. But, if you want to turn your back on modern science, can you please at least accept the consequences? There is no established right to be crowned the greatest tennis player ever. I guess they don’t call it entitlement for nothing.
As it happens, on Monday, we in the United States celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. He, too, encountered restrictions that he saw as unjust. (It goes without saying that resisting laws that denied millions of African Americans the vote is a far cry from some effete desire that endangers others.) But Dr. King was willing to pay the consequences for his principled actions—all the way to brutal beatings and the Birmingham jail, if that is what it took. That is what a principled stand looks like.
Djokovic, on the other hand, seems to think that, despite clear violations of Australian immigration policy, he is owed a free pass. It is time for Australia to send him packing.
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Peter Lurie (he/him/his) has been President and Executive Director of CSPI since 2017.
Peter Lurie, MD, MPH
President and Executive Director