As Myanmar’s military junta was prosecuting the country’s beloved pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday for allegedly violating COVID restrictions, Australian officials were busy humiliating themselves along similar lines in their case against Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic, the number one male tennis player in the world, traveled to Melbourne to defend his title at the Australian Open. But he was detained by the Australian Border Force (ABF) last Wednesday after touching down at Tullamarine Airport. The Victoria state government had granted him a health exemption to the country’s national vaccine mandate, which requires all foreign visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19, on the grounds that he recently recovered from the virus. But the country’s federal regulations do not recognize natural immunity as an alternative to vaccination, and the ABF deemed Djokovic’s exemption invalid. Officials held him for eight hours before sending him to a makeshift medical detention center at a rundown hotel to await a hearing.
Djokovic’s arrival triggered a string of Aussie politicians declaring they would not tolerate double standards—that their COVID rules apply as much to rich, healthy athletes as to everyone else, regardless of immune status. Djokovic’s visa was canceled; the nine-time Australian Open winner was told he would not be allowed to play. “While the Victorian government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border,” said Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. “If an arriving individual is not vaccinated, they must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.”
Alas, it was revealed on Monday that the government was itself violating its own word when it canceled Djokovic’s visa. After being banished to the hotel-turned-refugee shelter, he was supposed to have until 8:30 a.m. the following morning to consult his lawyers and present evidence in his defense. But the ABF summarily canceled his visa at 7:40 a.m., barring him from making his case. In Monday’s hearing, Judge Anthony Kelly reinstated Djokovic’s visa, saying the government’s actions were “unreasonable.” “We all play by the same rules,” said Kelly, but in this case, “those rules were not observed.” In its haste to throw the rulebook at Djokovic, Australian officials overshot and threw it out the window.
Many were furious that the government missed. One headline read, “Vaccine Exemption for Australian Open Will Cement Novak Djokovic as Tennis’ Top Villain.” Another read, “Djokovic Won His Court Case but Few Australians Are Cheering.” The writer attempted to explain why, saying, “for millions of Australians, memories of uncompromising border closures and other pandemic restrictions remain fresh.”
Grasping the reaction to the Djokovic situation does require understanding what Australians have been through over the past two years.
The grandstanding initially backfired, and we can thank the country’s remnants of civil society—its separation of powers and its process of judicial review—for temporarily ending the spectacle.
Aussies have managed to keep their COVID-related fatality count astonishingly low, at one point going for more than three months without reporting a single COVID death countrywide. But this has come at tremendous cost, not only to the Australian economy, which is experiencing its first recession in thirty years (unsurprisingly, despite massive stimulus packages), but also to families and the mental health of millions of Australians.
A massive factor was the country’s adoption of a “zero COVID” suppression strategy. Strict caps on international arrivals kept tens of thousands of Australian citizens from returning home, some stranded abroad for months on end, some for more than a year. Those in Australia were barred from leaving, and travel bans even kept people from traveling from one state to another, meaning that families were separated when they needed each other most. Australian cities also imposed some of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world. Melbourne locked down six times over the past two years for a total of 263 days. Only Yangon, Myanmar, forced its citizens into isolation for more total days.
The country finally began to open back up last fall in line with rising vaccination rates, spurred by “incredibly broad” vaccine mandates, as one lawyer put it. This also aligned, however, with the emergence of the Omicron variant. So, despite all the privations forced on the Australian people over the past two years, the country’s case count has sharpened into a vertical spike.
Australia finally began to ease restrictions last fall in line with rising vaxx rates, spurred by incredibly broad vaxx mandates. But then came Omicron. So, despite all the privations forced on Aussies over the past 2 years, their case count has sharpened into a vertical spike. pic.twitter.com/qyvrNYGlon— Jon Hersey (@revivingreason) January 13, 2022
Then, along comes a rich, young, healthy athlete who dares to question authority and maintain his right “to choose what’s best for my body.” It obviously seems unfair for one person not to have to follow the rules that everyone else has to follow. That being said, consistent application alone does not make a rule fair. The question that virtually everyone’s asking is: Shouldn’t Djokovic have to follow the same rules as everyone else? But the more important question of any rule is: Should this rule even exist?
It’s hard to imagine a more divisive issue than vaccine mandates (except maybe abortion). On the one hand, every individual has a right to his own body, which includes the right to decide what goes into it. On the other, some say, people have a right not to be infected, and this right trumps other peoples’ right not to get vaccinated. As the American Civil Liberties Union has argued, “Vaccines are a justifiable intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity. That may sound ominous, because we all have the fundamental right to bodily integrity and to make our own health care decisions. But these rights are not absolute. They do not include the right to inflict harm on others.”
It’s certainly true that knowingly infecting other people violates their rights, a fact with serious implications for Djokovic’s appearance—unmasked—at a photo shoot with children shortly after testing positive for COVID-19.
Australia’s Djokovic fiasco has little or nothing to do with safeguarding “public health.”
But is there really such a thing, as this argument implies, as a right to safety from airborne illness—a right that justifies “intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity”? If so, and if it’s the government’s job to protect rights, then it follows that the government must define “safety” in this context and enforce its citizens’ rights to it. A government would thereby have the authority to do what the Australian government did: keep people from returning to their own country, reuniting with their families, leaving their homes, and generally weighing risks for themselves and acting as they see fit. In other words, if people do have a right to safety, then government has the authority when enforcing it to disregard many other fundamental rights. If this is true, then people have rights that necessarily require a violation of other peoples’ rights. How could that be?
This conundrum highlights the problem with equating a right to life with a right to safety. Simply put, living isn’t safe; as the saying goes, the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Actually living, as opposed to merely surviving, requires that we take all sorts of risks to make our lives what we want them to be. That’s why people drive cars and fly airplanes, eat raw fish and go parasailing, have unprotected sex and start businesses others think are foolhardy. A right to life is not a right to health and safety. It’s not a right to force our risk preferences on other people. It is the right to act on our own judgment to make our lives as great as possible, so long as we do not violate the equal rights of others.
It appears that the majority of Australians either never learned this or have forgotten it. The silver lining of the Djokovic case was that it presented an opportunity to remember it—or to learn it.
Professional athletes are some of the healthiest people in the world, and Djokovic may be in the top 1 percent even in that category. Yet, what virtually every commentator has failed to acknowledge is that this man’s life’s work depends on his health, which is a function of what he puts into his body. Although we might disagree with his assessment of the risks and benefits of COVID vaccines, clearly the man is not crazy to hesitate over or even resist injecting himself with something he deems unnecessary given his context, including his goals, values, current health situation, and so on. What most commentators have done is ignore that context. They have pretended that vaccination poses no serious risks, even though it is a documented fact that it does. And worse, they have pretended that they have the knowledge and context necessary to make that decision for another human being—a human being who likely puts more thought into health and wellness than most people can fathom.
Of course, if Djokovic were currently infected, it would be far more justifiable to restrict his travel and keep him away from an event where he might infect others. But he is not, and the timing of his recent infection and recovery means that he would actually be at peak immunity during his time in Australia.
Clearly, Australia’s Djokovic fiasco has little or nothing to do with safeguarding “public health.” The Australian officials’ self-righteous declamations have had the ring of a high-school hall monitor eager to put the popular kid in his place. The only possible answer to the “why?” that Djokovic’s situation posed is: “Because I said so!”—a blatant flexing of authoritarian muscle.
The grandstanding initially backfired, and we can thank the country’s remnants of civil society—its separation of powers and its process of judicial review—for ending the spectacle, even if only temporarily. Still, the COVID theater continues because a gap in these safeguards gave Immigration Minister Alex Hawke unilateral authority to cancel Djokovic’s visa a second time, which he did on Friday, just three days before games begin at the Australian Open. Hawke said he did so on “health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” adding that he and the Australian government are “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Even, apparently, against non-carriers who pose no threat.
Love him or hate him, Djokovic gave Aussies a valuable opportunity—to pause, reflect, and reconsider the implications of individual rights for pandemic policy. Unfortunately, they've double-faulted.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 14, 2022, following Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s second cancellation of Novak Djokovic’s visa. It was republished with permission from The Objective Standard.