Australia and New Zealand were the envy of the world for much of the COVID-19 epidemic when it comes to keeping the virus at bay. With the rise of the super-contagious Omicron variation, however, the countries down under have experienced a recent uptick of instances, putting hospitals, testing facilities, and antipodean tempers under strain. That is why the news that Novak Djokovic, the current world number one tennis player who is defending his title at the Australian Open this month, had granted a medical exemption from the mandated double vaccine required to enter the country generated such a stir.
Former Australian Rules football player Corey McKernan tweeted, “People with loved ones who dying/some need urgent treatment cannot enter into their own states.” “You tell people they can’t go to Coles or a cafe without getting vaxxed, but you get a pass if you’re world number one?” “You’re a fucking disgrace.” Australian authorities appeared to make a U-turn right away. Djokovic detained by border officials upon arrival in Melbourne informed him that he had not completed the entrance requirements and that his visa would be revoked. The tennis player was brought to a notoriously dismal prison facility, where he is currently awaiting a deportation decision.
However, how did we get here? In addition, where else in the post-COVID-19 world can the famously anti-vax athlete be prevented from competing. Well, depending on how you look at it, the Djokovic fiasco is either very easy or complex. All visitors to Australia must be either double vaccinated or have a documented medical exemption, according to current Australian law. Djokovic is not vaccinated, thus he cannot enter Australia unless he has a medical exemption, which the Australian border force has ruled he does not.
“There are restrictions, and if you don’t want to get the vaccine, then you can have some problems,” said Rafael Nadal, a fellow world champion tennis player. He could play here in Australia without a problem if he wanted to.” So, did Djokovic believe he could get away with breaking the rules? Of course, some cynics – and even some professional athletes – have speculated that the tennis champion was relying on his celebrity to get around the rules, but there is more to this story. To obtain the medical exemption, Djokovic would have had to certify by two distinct independent medical committees — a process that is anonymous, according to top tennis coach Paul Annacone.
Tennis Australia, which organizes the Australian Open, and the state of Victoria, where the tournament is located, both convened medical panels for Djokovic, and both cleared him for a medical exemption. Normally, an exemption would grant if a person had a specific medical condition, such as an inflammatory heart ailment, that prevented them from receiving the vaccine safely. You may also be exempt if you are getting end-of-life care, have ASD or another mental disorder that makes vaccination difficult, are pregnant (though it is safe and recommended), are going to have surgery, or have had a bad response to a previous dose.
The Victorian state government, however, included another option when it announced its medical exemption criteria in December: “Evidence of medical exemption for overseas travelers” could take the form of “a documented diagnosed COVID-19 infection confirmed by a PCR test within the previous 6 months,” according to the state website. That is right: Victoria, like Florida before them, had included a provision for so-called “natural immunity” from earlier infection — although a temporary one.
Tennis Australia implemented those criteria as well, and Djokovic cleared both panels after claiming to have recovered from a COVID-19 infection in the previous six months. The scheme had one flaw: the Australian Border Force is a government body, thus their medical exemption standards were a little more severe. According to Anthony Galloway of The Age, “Federal government sources confirmed that negotiations were held between the Victorian government, Tennis Australia, and Border Force concerning the acceptable exemptions for not being vaccinated.”
“Tennis Australia was warned expressly in writing a number of times that a recent COVID infection was not a valid cause not to get completely vaccinated,” according to one source. Therefore, as vehemently anti-science as Djokovic is – and let us faces it, the person does appear to believe you can cleanse water by willpower alone — his current predicament in Australian immigration limbo could be the product of a genuine blunder.