Police stand guard outside Melbourne's Park HotelJanuary 6th, Melbourne: Police officers stand guard as pro-refugee protestors are forcibly removed from atop an awning at the Park Hotel, where Novak Djokovic had been held. [Photo: Alamy REUTERS/Loren Elliott]

Commonwealth Update has become Eye on the Commonwealth: after 38 years in print form, Commonwealth Update has moved from the Round Table journal to the Round Table’s website. Originally Commonwealth Notebook, the column became Commonwealth Update in 1993. The new-look Eye on the Commonwealth will seek to provide a perspective on a topical development by the journal’s Commonwealth Update editor, Oren Gruenbaum. 

Jesus, Spartacus – or just ‘a lying, sneaky arsehole’, as a newsreader put it in a ‘hot mic’ moment? These were some of the polarised views on the tennis star Novak Djokovic as the run-up to the Australian Open put a spotlight on an unusual conjunction of sport, public health, immigration policies and the antivaxxer movement.

Djokovic arrived in Melbourne hoping to win a record 21st grand slam title but found himself detained, released, detained again and then deported. In fighting his visa cancellation, the Serbian player came up hard against Australian public opinion and crystallised the growing resentment at those rejecting the restrictions largely accepted by most people in Australia  as part of subduing the Covid-19 pandemic. While detained, in a run-down Melbourne hotel also used to house refugees, he also sparked a diplomatic row as the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, summoned Australia’s ambassador in Belgrade and demanded that they immediately release Djokovic to compete.

The Serb, never a popular player on the tennis circuit and known for violent tantrums and gamesmanship, has always been coy about his Covid vaccination status, though he is widely seen as being one of only three unvaccinated players in the men’s and women’s top 100. However, he became a poster boy for antivaxxers after declaring in April 2020 that he was ‘opposed to vaccination’. Two months later, with the world in lockdown, he organised the Adria tennis tournament in Serbia and Croatia, at which masks and social distancing were absent and, unsurprisingly, he and several other players went down with Covid. He is also close to a ‘wellness guru’ who believes positive thought can purify water.

Perhaps bracing for how the reigning champion’s unorthodox views could prove problematic, Alex Hawke, Australia’s immigration minister, had warned last October: ‘You’ll need to be double vaccinated to visit Australia. That’s a universal application, not just to tennis players.’ So it did not go down well when, before flying to a country where families had been kept apart by stay-at-home orders, Djokovic blithely announced: ‘I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission.’

Despite having had a strict response to the pandemic – closing its borders for 20 months, preventing families meeting over Christmas, and imposing quotas and quarantines on arrivals – Australia had recorded more than 600,000 cases and nearly 2,300 deaths by early January. With more than half of those infections reported in the two weeks before Djokovic arrived, there was a furious reaction to his exemption. One tweet declared: ‘Whoever knocks Djokovic out of the #AusOpen may never need to buy a beer in Australia ever again.’ A former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association tweeted: ‘It sends an appalling message … If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in.’ Another doctor called Djokovic’s exemption ‘a kick in the guts’.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison – who faces a federal election in 2022, after a year in which his poll ratings nosedived – scrambled to get on the right side of public opinion, warning that Djokovic would not get preferential treatment. The Serb’s visa was cancelled, as the Border Force announced that he had ‘failed to provide appropriate evidence’, and he was sent to Melbourne’s now-famous Park immigration hotel, where Australia also detains asylum-seekers.

In a hearing watched live by 50,000 people, a judge overturned his visa cancellation on the basis that Djokovic had not been given enough time to respond. Two days later, after it became clear Djokovic had lied about not visiting other countries before Australia, and that he had attended public events in Serbia after he had supposedly tested positive for coronavirus, Hawke revoked his visa on the grounds of ‘health and good order’, saying it was ‘in the public interest’. Djokovic appealed again but three federal court judges upheld the minister’s decision and the player was finally deported.

As well as scorn for the Australian Open’s organisers, who had let the tournament be defined by one player, whatever sympathy there was for Djokovic among his fellow tennis professionals soon evaporated as the saga dragged on. The former No1 Justine Henin spoke for many when she said ‘the best thing [is] he doesn’t play’. A top coach, Darren Cahill, said: ‘Considering what the folks have been thru, get vaccinated … no wriggle room.’

Djokovic’s high-profile dissent from the new norms of the pandemic had alarmed public health experts, who quickly saw how his behaviour could erode the ‘prosociality’ needed for compliance with the Australian government’s stringent anti-Covid measures. Stuart Mills, a behavioural scientist at LSE, warned of how a potential ‘Djokovic effect’ could create a cascade of copycat non-compliance, just as public faith in the UK government’s handling of the pandemic plunged after the PM’s former adviser Dominic Cummings was caught flouting lockdown rules. ‘This social contract is sustained only through fairness,’ said Mills.

To his family and supporters, however, Djokovic was a martyr.  President Vučić claimed Djokovic was a victim of ‘political persecution’, while the player’s father, Srdjan, compared his son to Jesus – ‘Novak is also crucified’ – as well as the slave rebel leader Spartacus. To Djokovic Sr – as well as the fans protesting outside the hotel, many draped in the national flag and dancing to folk songs in traditional costume – his son embodied Serbia itself: ‘They are trampling on Novak and thus they are trampling on Serbia and the Serbian people.’ The throng of Djokovic fans eventually turned into a riot, with police using pepper spray on the crowd after bottles were thrown.

There was a similarly intemperate reaction from many antivaxxers. Craig Kelly, a right-wing MP and head of the United Australia Party who is a leading climate-change denier and conspiracy theorist, called Djokovic ‘a political prisoner of the Morrison regime’. He was speaking at a rally organised by Reclaim The Line, where marchers brandished placards with slogans such as ‘Vax-free are the new 1940s Jews’.

Also outside Djokovic’s hotel, but struggling to get as much airtime on news bulletins as his fans, were campaigners calling for the release of refugees, some of whom have been held there for years. And these are the lucky ones – more than 3,000 people seeking asylum in Australia have been held offshore in Papua New Guinea or Nauru since 2013. One young Iranian, from the persecuted Ahwazi Arab minority, has been detained since he was 15, when he arrived by boat seeking sanctuary. Despite formal recognition as a refugee, he has since been held on Nauru, or in Brisbane or Melbourne. He spent his 24th birthday in the Park hotel.

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