Tennis player Novak Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — and his subsequent efforts to manipulate Australia’s medical exemption system so as to be allowed a visa to enter the country and compete in the first Grand Slam of the year — is one of the most surreal developments in tennis history.
Djokovic remains in Australia and is still scheduled to participate in the championships. Yet, for days now, he’s been hanging on by a thread. Friday evening, Australian time Alex Hawke, the country’s immigration minister, decided, for the second time in nine days, to expel him from the countryHe was infected with COVID and he broke quarantine regulations. He also lied to immigration officials about his travels in order to enter the country earlier this month. He was also a focal point of antivaccine sentiment.
Djokovic’s team is appealing, but he is quickly running out of options. It is more than probable that the world’s best tennis player will, just before the Australian Open begins, be unceremoniously dumped onto a plane and told not to return to Australia for at least three years.
The course of events that have unfolded since Djokovic was first detained by immigration authorities on January 5 is an extraordinary example of self-sabotage from one of the sporting world’s most famous figures, who, in recent years, acquired the media nickname “No-Vax Djokovic”His controversial opinions on vaccines.
But, by accident rather than design, Djokovic’s surreal and self-inflicted drama has also served the important purpose of turning global public attention toward the cruel treatment that Australia routinely metes out to undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in the country.
To summarize events to date: Australia — which implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in an effort to emulate China’s zero-COVID stance — has a policy of only letting vaccinated travelers enter the country. Medical exemptions AreThese exemptions are allowed, but the criteria is very narrow. However, this was a couple of weeks ago. Djokovic, a nine-time winner of the Australian Open, boarded a plane to Australia unvaccinatedHe was granted an exemption to allow him into the country.
After a hullabaloo about this, the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, went on a very public warpath against the world’s top tennis player. As a result, when the Serbian player arrived, he was promptly detained by immigration authorities, who noted that the type of visa he had applied for didn’t allow for medical exemptions. After a night of arguing with authorities, Djokovic — who is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam wins of any male player in history, and who was predicted by many to win the Australian Open and break the tie — was unceremoniously carted off to a detention center and locked up in a room with several other detainees.
The hotel-cum-jail that Djokovic ended up in housed several dozen would-be refugees and asylum seekers caught up in Australia’s notoriously harsh immigration detention system. Nine years ago, the current Liberal-National governing coalition got elected on a “stopping the boats” anti-immigration policy, implementing Operation Sovereign BordersIt was able to repel boatloads upon boatloads of refugees. It began detaining potential immigrants in off-shore detention facilities on the islands Nauru/Papua New Guinea. When they became too sick to stay in the island detention fortresses longer, it reluctantly allowed them onto Australian soil. Once in Australia, they were housed in overcrowded and under-resourced privately run “hotels” for years at a stretch. Djokovic and some of the others were held for up to nine year since Operation Sovereign Borders’ inception.
Djokovic spent his weekend in the Park Hotel detention centerThe detention center is located in a suburb near Melbourne. The detention center is a place where prisoners are required to ask permission to use the toilet. They are also shackled before being moved around. They are provided with such low caloric intake that human rights activists say the food regimen amounts to near-starvation conditions — and what food there is, critics say, is sometimes filled with maggots. Despite numerous lawsuits against the agencies that maintain services at the detention sites, the Park Hotel continues to provide substandard medical care for the sick. Djokovic’s parents, in a series of broadsides, accused the authorities of torturing him.
On Monday, a judge ordered his release, and, in a scathing rebuke of the government, announced that Djokovic had abided by all the requirements to secure an exemption — including providing proof that he had recently tested positive for COVID — and that he should, therefore, be allowed to stay in the country.
Despite it all being late at night, the tennis player, known for his focus on winning and willpower, immediately headed to the arena practice courts.
But, in the days since, a barrage of revelations has shattered Djokovic’s reputation and given Australia’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, an opening to once more seek to deport the sports megastar. The German daily newspaper Der Spiegel published an investigation casting doubt on the authenticity and date of Djokovic’s supposed positive COVID test on December 16. The investigation revealed that Djokovic had manipulated the data to claim a medical exemption that was open to COVID patients who have recently been infected and recovered from it. It was also discovered that Djokovic had attended several indoor, unmasked eventsShortly after testing positive, he also gave an interview with a French sports journalist, without letting him know that he was suffering from COVID.
Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Djokovic either conjured up a fake-positive test result to game the Australian immigration system, or he genuinely tested positive and didn’t care enough to abide by basic quarantine restrictions that have been in place the world over for the past two years.
It was worse than that: Djokovic’s immigration forms contained a bald-faced lie. Someone on his team had ticked that he hadn’t traveled anywhere other than Spain in the 14 days prior to boarding a flight from Spain, via Dubai, to Melbourne. Numerous photos quickly circulated showing that the tennis star had been to Serbia during this period, where he had attended several high-profile ceremonies in his honour. Djokovic put out a perfunctory apologyOn Instagram, he stated that his colleague had just made an honest error in filling out this form incorrectly. The damage was done: Faking immigration paperwork can lead to deportation as well as imprisonment.
As I write this, on Friday morning California time, with less than three days left before play begins at the Australian Open, Hawke has once more revoked Djokovic’s visa, and the tennis star, seeded number one in the upcoming championships, has agreed to surrender for further questioning on Saturday morning. Djokovic will not participate in the event unless there is an extraordinary twist in the legal story.
If and when “No-Vax” Djokovic is expelled from Australia, he will have no one to blame but himself. It’s a tennis tragedy with more than an absurdist tinge to it.
Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers are still held in appalling conditions in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Their stories are the true stories of injustice, and the conditions they are held in for years at a stretch, as a result of the Australian government’s embrace of harsh anti-immigration measures, are a human rights violation that deserves the world’s attention.