An Australian judge’s stunning dismissal of the government’s hasty attempt to deport the world No. 1 men’s tennis player is a spectacular defeat for an administration that prides itself on strong borders.
Judge Anthony Kelly’s ruling that Novak Djokovic be freed to contest the Australian Open overruled the government’s insistence that he should be barred for failing to prove he is exempt from being inoculated against Covid-19.
Australia’s small but vocal group of anti-vaxxers see Djokovic as a hero who took on the state – and won. Others, especially those from Australia’s Serbian community, see him as a victim of unfair persecution. On Monday night, supporters crowded the streets outside the office of the Serb’s Melbourne lawyer chanting, “Free Novak. Free Novak. Free Novak.”
On Monday, as Djokovic’s lawyers argued their client did everything humanly possible to satisfy the government’s requirements for an exemption from vaccination, Australia’s Covid-19 cases neared a pandemic total of 1 million.
On the surface, those numbers may suggest the unvaccinated Djokovic doesn’t pose a serious health risk to the Australian public, as the government argued. It may also suggest that Australia’s strict anti-Covid measures have ended – and in many ways they have.
However, for millions of Australians, memories of uncompromising border closures and other pandemic restrictions remain fresh.
Months before a federal election, it can be assumed the ruling Liberal Party decided that allowing Djokovic into the country contradicted its messaging that vaccinations are the way out of the pandemic, and that the pain of the past two years to keep Covid cases low was worth it.
But in losing the court challenge, the government may have only succeeded in casting one of the world’s most prominent anti-vaxxers as a victim and its officials as bullies using their executive power to make a political point.
Tough border restrictions kept Australians out
The Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has long boasted about being tough on borders, and it was especially so during the pandemic.
Australia was one of the first countries to adopt a zero-Covid policy when international borders closed in March 2020.
The move succeeded in keeping the country’s Covid deaths enviably low, but the move had severe repercussions for Australians living outside the country – and those within.
For almost two years, tens of thousands of citizens were prevented from coming home after airlines canceled flights to comply with government caps on new arrivals.
A ban was placed on anyone leaving the country without a valid exemption, which was hard to obtain, and all new arrivals were taken into hotels run by the government for two weeks’ quarantine.
Not only were international borders shut, but state borders periodically closed and reopened, preventing families from seeing loved ones without a government-approved reason and forcing some returning locals to quarantine in a hotel at their own expense.
The measures prompted protests, but for the most part Australians complied – they watched Covid spread worldwide, killing millions.
But the restrictions weren’t enough. Outbreaks saw Melbourne and Sydney locked down for months, and finally at the end of last year the government conceded that Covid-19 couldn’t be contained.
It was an awkward exercise in changing public messaging from keeping the virus out to learning to live with Covid-19. Unfortunately for the government, the relaxation of measures coincided with the arrival of the Omicron variant, leading to soaring cases and unwelcome new problems.
The sudden rush for PCR tests led to people queuing for hours to obtain a test that in some cases wasn’t returned for days as testing clinics became overwhelmed. Some people who feared infection tried to get rapid antigen tests, but the faster, personal tests are hard to find. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt promised Sunday that millions of tests were on their way, in the meantime, many are following advice to stay at home and monitor symptoms.
Vaccinations are key
The government has told Australians that vaccinations are the way out of the pandemic. After a slow rollout, the country has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates – 92% of eligible people over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated, according to government statistics.
But despite being ahead of the curve in tackling Covid-19, Australia has only just started vaccinating children ages 5-11.
Queensland has already delayed the start of the school year by two weeks to avoid the projected peak in cases in that state at the end of January and early February. Other states have said school will start on time as normal, despite the caseload.
There are no formal lockdowns in Australia, but as cases rise, some people are self-isolating to avoid catching the virus. Shelves are empty in some supermarkets as supply chains strain under worker absences for illness or isolation. Health workers say they’re exhausted despite official assurances the system is coping.
Early on in the Djokovic saga, some speculated the government’s focus on his visa was a distraction from the problems plaguing ordinary Australians. If it was, it only succeeded in diverting attention to another issue normally overlooked – the country’s treatment of refugees.
For a short time, the world focused on the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where about 30 people who sought safety in Australia are languishing, indefinitely, under the country’s immigration policies.
They are bound by the same Migration Act that temporarily detained Djokovic. The same court that settled his case has heard their arguments for years. And the same minister who is said to be considering re-arresting Djokovic has the power to free them.
If nothing else, for many Australians, the past two years has provided some perspective.
Some now question why special privileges are extended to sports people who travel the world when others only recently struggled to cross a state border to see a loved one – and now are finding it hard to get a test to even confirm their illness.
The questions become especially pointed if a particular sports person – through his words and actions – directly contradicts the promise that vaccinations will mean a return to normal life.
If and when Djokovic takes to the court in a bid to claim a record-extending 10th Australian Open title – it’s likely most cheers won’t be for him.
And when the government calls an election, it will hope that most Australians overlook its latest blunder and forget the humiliating court order to free – and pay costs for – one of the world’s most successful sportsmen.