While Boris Johnson and Novak Djokovic may seem like supposedly unrelated men, the two have actually both managed to strike up a similar conversation about Covid-19's relationship to privilege. Back in December 2020, despite consistent denials by the Prime Minister, an alleged Christmas party took place in 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country faced strict 'stay at home' regulations. The party quickly became a political scandal across the UK with many confused by the Prime Minister's denial despite leaked footage from the event. This week however Johnson has changed his tune and has formally admitted to attending the drinks party in a 'heartfelt apology'. Sadly, the apology felt hollow as Johnson is seemingly trying to cover his back by claiming that he believed the drinks party was a work event. Why then would he deny the party for the entirety of 2021 if he did "nothing wrong"? The UK can't help but see the plot holes in Johnson's story, leaving the population stunned and puzzled as to why the Prime Minister is entitled to special treatment from pandemic rules.
This year, with the recent Djokovic saga, people seem to be asking a similar question; why are people in positions of power treated differently during this Covid crisis? While the Australian government has not 'done a Johnson' and allowed the unvaccinated tennis player to bypass any rules, the resulting movement and court case imply that Djokovic may deserve special treatment. Prior to the decision to deport Djokovic from Australia and prevent him from defending his title in the Open, fans fought for the Serbian player to be allowed to compete in the match. The court case between the Australian government and Djokovic similarly fought for this and the question threading through this plight therefore is one that asks why Djokovic would be exempt from the rules at all?
The Djokovic fans had created a symbolic movement urging the Australian government to allow him to play and while it may seem like an innocent and well-deserved request, what fans are essentially fighting for is for Djokovic to be exempt from Covid-19 rules. The court case similarly asked for this almost special treatment to be applied and to allow Djokovic a medical exemption even when it could pose health risks to the country.
What is particularly striking about this case is the request for Djokovic to be be allowed to enter a country that has not even allowed many of it's own citizens to return from abroad. Australia has experienced some of the strictest Covid-19 rules in the world with thousands of Australians stranded from returning, unable to attend weddings, funerals or to simply be in their own homes again. The government's mishandling of the situation coupled with the fight for an unvaccinated Serbian tennis player has therefore forged a gaping hole in Covid-19 tensions both within and outside of Australia.
This is because Djokovic's unvaccinated Covid-19 status has not helped with vaccination rates in Serbia that currently rest at only 46.9% (Ritchie et al. 2022). The BBC along with the Tennis World Organisation and other notable sources have named Djokovic the most famous person in Serbia and a national hero for the nation, who has inspired people in many different ways. Viktor Troicki has spoken about how,
"Novak has put our nation on the map with all the things he has done for our country. He is the most famous person in the whole country and the region. People recognise it, kids want to be like him” (Prakesh, 2020).
Djokovic has been seen as a figure that has given hope to people in Serbia and someone to make them proud of their country. This is however tinged with the controversy that he may also be in part to blame for inspiration against getting vaccinated. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove argues that with production capacity it is possible to have 70% of the population vaccinated in every country, which will draw a close to the pandemic. The nuance to Kerkhove's argument however is that,
"we will not be able to boost our way out of this pandemic. We need to increase vaccination among those most at risk in every single country and not just boost some people in some countries over and over and over again" (Leonard, 2022).
And with figures like Djokovic, the 70% vaccination rate becomes almost unimaginable. This only exposes how influential people in positions like this can be. To spark a desire to fight for someone unvaccinated seems unfathomable and yet the tennis star has unintentionally managed to do this. His influence has also sadly clouded a tragic reality that has silently undergirded this entire tennis chronicle.
The the lives of 35 refugees and asylum seekers living in the same hotel as Djokovic while he awaited the decision have been absent from headlines amidst the immense focus on the squabbles between the Tennis Association and the Australian government. This is the story that should have instead dominated headlines but didn't. The crisis was tragically brought to attention as Djokovic was 'detained' in the Melbourne Park Hotel, however as Djokovic was sat waiting for a few days, some of these people had been there for 9 years. Mehdi Ali, who fled from Iran has spoken up about his story explaining how he has been detained since his arrival and the trauma he has faced;
"the main problem is, criminals, get sentenced for the crime they committed, so they know when they’ll get out, and they can manage their time till then. But the tragedy is that people in detention don’t know when they’ll get out” (Qazi 2022)
Djokovic's desire to play tennis has certainly made him the piggy in the middle of arguably the two most prominent global issues the world is facing right now; Covid-19 and refugees. Almost entirely unintended, this Djokovic series that has made headlines nearly every day this week has turned out to be another crucial awakening as to the influence people in positions of power have over both media coverage and how people respond to certain issues.
Delauney, Guy. 2022. "Novak Djokovic: Serbs seethe over tennis hero's entry ban". BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59900129.
Leonard, Jackie. 2022. "Kazakhstan calls for Russian help amid unrest". Podcast. Global News Podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/global-news-podcast/id135067274?i=1000547056256.
Prakesh. 2020. "Viktor Troicki: Novak Djokovic is the most famous person in Serbia". Tennis World USA. https://www.tennisworldusa.org/tennis/news/Novak_Djokovic/83583/viktor-troicki-novak-djokovic-is-the-most-famous-person-in-serbia/.
Ritchie, Hannah et al. 2022. "Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19)". Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations?country=OWID_WRL.
Image: Steinberger, Michael. 2022. Novak Djokovic, a Master on the Court, Keeps Making Errors Off It. Nytimes.com. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/15/sports/tennis/novak-djokovic-australian-open.html.