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Voices: We need to calm down about Novak Djokovic – he’s not broken any rules

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  • Novak Djokovic
    Novak Djokovic
    Serbian tennis player

I don’t know much about tennis, and I know even less about Novak Djokovic, but I do think we might all try calming down about him going to entertain the crowds at the Australian Open.

Despite admittedly suspicious appearances, and the genuine anger of many – not just in Australia – he might actually not be getting special treatment. It might not be corrupt. It might be annoying, but OK. He might have a perfectly valid reason for his Covid vaccine exemption after all, if he has had Covid already. It’s possible.

Hypocrisy is obviously a terrible crime under the Media Legal Code, one that exists quite independently of any known body of law (which rarely, if ever, outlaws rank hypocrisy), but I’m not sure he’s actually guilty of it here.

He’s plainly got some weird and dangerous ideas about vaccination and, on the face of it, he seems a healthy young chap who is unlikely to get a medical exemption from the Covid vaccine. Yet, unless you think the Australian tennis authorities and government are all crooks, it might actually be the case that he can enter Australia and mix with folk at the Open because he’s had Covid lately – and the Australians allow that to count as grounds for an exemption. Indeed, that was also the case in Britain with the “Covid passport”, until plan B came into force a couple of weeks ago.

A recent case of Covid would mean you had antibodies coursing through your veins, regarded as about the same as having a vaccine – but that ethos had to be abolished after the arrival of Omicron. It would be helpful, to say the least, if Djokovic explained what his exemption amounted to, simply because in the current vacuum, all sorts of conspiracy theories flood in, and you can certainly see why.

Presumably, the tennis tournament is big business and having this glamorous star around will make things a commercial success. The temptation for the federal and state governments and the tennis association to bend the rules a little must be great – but they have not necessarily done so, if Djokovic has indeed endured a dose of Covid fairly recently.

But he won’t say. He doesn’t have to say, actually, because fundamentally it’s his own concern and not anyone else’s, even if he ought to. All he has said, on Instagram, is: “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading down under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022. I am ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition.”

It doesn’t sound like he’s spent two weeks coughing his guts up, unable to taste his turkey lunch; but I’ve not seen his Covid/antibody tests results, so can’t say much more.

An unfortunate turn of phrase, that, about “live and breathe”, though – and offensive in the circumstances, as is his reticence about the exemption. So, as one Australian tweeted: “Novak Djokovic is about to find out what it’s like to be despised by all of Australia. We’re all nice and laid back until we’re not.”

The issue is really with the Australian authorities for allowing a medical exemption for “natural immunity” from recent Covid, and not actually requiring all visitors to be vaccinated, as such. Whether that’s a good idea scientifically is another question, but generally the fewer the loopholes when it comes to vaccinations (and other precautions) the better, because it means greater public confidence in the system, and less concern that it’s one rule for an Australian citizen and another for a famous foreign sportsman.

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As with President Macron’s muscular approach to getting the French vaccinated, the more encouragements that can be made for people to get the jabs – and especially the boosters – the more lives will be saved.

Most non-vaccinated people actually seem to be more hesitant or disorganised rather than manically hostile cranks, so persuasion and easy access to a jab are the keys to success, and support from prominent public figures would help.

If I were the Australian immigration minister, I’d ban Djokovic from entering the country just because of his wacky beliefs about vaccination and therefore as a threat to public health, rather than over some technical rules about Covid certification.

Djokovic is a foolish man and his opposition to vaccination is unfounded and especially unfortunate given his large fan base – but he cannot be blamed for exploiting the rules that the Australians have themselves set down for entry to their country and its sporting events. Anyway, Djokovic has given me another reason not to bother watching.

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