Novak Djokovic is accustomed to dominating on the tennis court, but an Australian judge has ordered his release from jail. However, just as a tournament is not decided in a single round, this issue could take a long time to resolve. In principle, the case involves only one man in extremely odd circumstances in a single country. Nonetheless, the eventual result may have ramifications for global efforts to impose vaccine mandates. Novak Djokovic is the world’s top-ranked male tennis player, for those who are late.
He is also an outspoken anti-vaccine activist who filed for a medical exemption to avoid Australia’s requirement that visitors be double vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to compete in the Australian Open. Most medical exemptions do not apply to anyone capable of playing social tennis, let alone winning a professional tournament, but Djokovic claims he qualifies because he tested positive last month.
Two committees, giving him the impression that he could enter Australia lawfully, but the decision sparked a widespread outcry from a public who saw it as preferential treatment accepted Djokovic. The Australian government then stated that the panels in question lacked the authority to accept his entry, revoked his visa, and imprisoned him in a motel that houses asylum seekers in sometimes-deplorable conditions. Judge Anthony Kelly invalidated the visa cancellation and ordered Djokovic’s release today, with the government ordered to pay his legal costs. It will be some time before we know whether this is a big setback for vaccine mandates or a one-time condemnation of Australia’s Border Force is inept handling of the issue.
Kelly has simply determined that Border Force officials needed to allow Djokovic additional time to make his case, in the most literal sense. Djokovic’s counsel said that correspondence his client received prior to his trip to Australia would lead a reasonable person to believe he had granted permission. “The issue that has me agitated is, what more could this man have done?” Kelly was the one who inquired. As a result, it is possible that once the dust settles, the only difference the case will make is that those enforcing vaccine mandates will need to lay out exactly what constitutes a medical exception. Specifically, the mess may have been averted if there had been a better response to the question of whether “natural” immunity derived from recently catching the virus replaces double vaccination.
However, it is possible that this misunderstanding arose in the first place because of a scientific dispute over whether receiving COVID-19 is as effective as vaccination in preventing future infection. We know COVID-19 is not like smallpox, which cannot caught twice, as Djokovic demonstrated by contracting COVID-19 during his self-organized superspreader event and then contracting it again 18 months later. However, Djokovic’s case may not yet be closed. Kelly said he does not have the jurisdiction to stop the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship from terminating Djokovic’s visa on his own authority, which is a distinct possibility.
To use an uncommonly apt analogy, this effectively puts the ball back in the Australian Government’s court. It can admit that its personnel messed up their original communication and hence failed to offer procedural justice by denying Djokovic the time he required. This would be a significant embarrassment months before an election, especially for a party that has won previous elections on its perceived supremacy on border security. Alternatively, the appropriate ministers could choose to keep the issue alive, which would raise a slew of new concerns.
These might include scientific problems such as whether recent infection could consider a substitute for immunization, as Djokovic argued and the committees appeared to agree on. This is something that some other countries allow. If this is the case, additional disputes may arise, such as whether all versions should be included for these purposes. Questions have also risen about why Djokovic was speaking in public and attending events in the days after he claimed to have tested positive.
By sealing its external borders early and limiting migration between states, Australia had exceptionally low COVID-19 rates in 2020 and much of 2021, with some states nearly entirely spared. Many citizens, however, paid the price when they were unable to return home. Others were unable to see loved ones on the other side of state lines, resulting in tragedy in some cases. As a result, the question of allowing people who may be infected with COVID-19 has become extremely sensitive. Perhaps Australia’s Border Force due to the pressure of so much attention mishandled the process. However, previous gaffes imply this is not a one-time occurrence.