NOVAK DJOKOVIC may yet defend his Australian Open tennis title, but he’s not the freedom fighter many of his supporters believe.
As governments around the world struggle to guide their nations through a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, tolerance for anti-vaxxers is waning. The uproar in Australia to news that a Melbourne court, over the objections of the federal government and immigration authorities, had cleared the Serbian to enter the country without being vaccinated is not the bleating of a backward land at the far end of the world. Instead, it’s a sign that he really is among a global minority that’s shrinking by the day as the high-speed spread of the Omicron variant energizes a new round of vaccinations.
Djokovic may have secured a win when the court quashed the cancellation of his visa. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory in the battle against science and the thousands of researchers developing and rolling out inoculations to protect global populations. The European Union has around 80% of its adults fully immunized. Australia, which may yet deport Djokovic if the government decides to push the case further, has 91% of people 12 years and over fully vaccinated.
Even in the US, where a misinformation campaign has deepened partisan divides over the response to COVID-19, more than 79% of the population aged five and older has had at least one dose.
From vaccine and mask mandates at Broadway shows in New York to school closures in Italy, life as we once knew it is in disarray. Leaders who’d hoped that vaccine rollouts would guide their countries back to normalcy are increasingly frustrated with the few who are not only opposed, but continuing to spread misinformation even as they are more likely to die from the disease.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is among the latest to show his annoyance. With 100,000 new cases and 700 hospitalizations on Monday, the nation is grappling with whether to reopen schools. While his government won a court battle against Italy’s Campania region that had fought to keep them shut, he made clear where he thinks the true trouble lies.
“Most of the problems we have today stem from the fact that there are people who are not vaccinated,” Draghi said. And that’s a distinct minority, with more than 90% of the adult population having had at least one dose by the end of December.
Policies that exist in various countries of excluding those who’ve chosen not to be vaccinated from places like restaurants and public buildings has been labeled vaccine apartheid, a decidedly off-key reference to South Africa’s policy in the mid-20th century of separating people by race. But the difference is stark — individuals have a choice of getting immunized or not. That wasn’t the case for victims of decades of legalized racist oppression.
As solid majorities in wealthier countries become vaccinated, some leaders have tired of persuading the holdouts and grown unapologetic about pressuring them. French President Emmanuel Macron said what many others are likely thinking, that he wants to “piss off” the unvaccinated until they get their shots. And he may not have far to go — 93% of adults in France have received at least one dose.
Much was made of the uproar against such language, and Macron’s vocalization of disdain for a minority that’s unlikely to vote for him anyway in presidential elections in April. Indeed, criticizing them might shore up his support within the vaccinated majority. But his logic, from a public policy perspective, can’t be faulted. “The idea of freedom brandished by some of our fellow citizens to say, ‘I’m free not to get vaccinated.’ That stops where you impinge on others’ liberty, where you put others’ lives in danger,” he later said.
All that anyone wants at this point is the freedom to return to something resembling life pre-COVID. The people preventing that from happening are not the vaccine advocates — a group that by now includes even Donald Trump — but those, like Djokovic, who put their own idiosyncratic views before the welfare of those who are less young, healthy, and powerful. He’s said he opposes vaccines, but later clarified that he’s open-minded about them while refusing to get inoculated against COVID-19. The 34-year-old has previously stated that positive thoughts could cleanse polluted water, among other claims.
At this moment, roughly one in 44 Australians is infected with COVID-19, one of the highest rates in the world. The fact that the country is now able to ride this out without stringent lockdowns or a devastating wave of deaths is a tribute to the vast majority who have taken their shots to support the health of their fellows and neighbors. This is what a return to normality looks like — and, given the ingenuity of SARS-CoV-2 in generating new variants, it will require continued vigilance around booster shots and modest distancing measures for some time to come.
By chipping away at the public health measures that Australia has used to give itself this outcome, Djokovic has given succor to those who would flout vaccine rules and leave the world less capable of coping with the next variant, and the next pandemic. Liberty for a world No. 1 tennis player that leaves the less fortunate captive to the risks of a fatal infection is no true freedom.