SYDNEY – On a tennis court, Novak Djokovic’s timing is perfect. But when he arrived in Australia to play the first Grand Slam of the year with documents allowing him to enter the country without a COVID-19 vaccine, his timing could hardly have been worse.
When Djokovic landed in Melbourne on Wednesday, he found himself in a city plagued by an upsurge in cases of the virus.
Border officials rejected Djokovic’s documents, canceled his visa and ordered him to leave the country, which many Australians applauded. The tennis star’s outspoken opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine has gone wrong in a city where 92% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.
Djokovic is appealing the order to leave and remains in Melbourne for the time being.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had not opposed Tennis Australia and the Victoria State Government’s decision to grant Djokovic a vaccine exemption, swiftly passed the decision to deny him entry , raising questions as to whether the world’s best male tennis player – and defending Australian Open champion – had become a scapegoat.
“No one is above these rules,” Morrison said. “Our strict border policies have been essential for Australia to have one of the world’s lowest death rates from COVID. We continue to be vigilant.”
Former Australian Open tournament director and Davis Cup player Paul McNamee has said Djokovic’s treatment is unfair.
“The guy played by the rules, he got his visa, he’s coming in, he’s a nine-time champion and whether people like it or not he’s entitled to fair play,” McNamee told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. There is no doubt that there is a certain disconnect between state and federal government. “I hate to think that politics is involved, but it is like that.”
During the first two years of the pandemic, under Morrison’s leadership, Australia pursued a zero COVID policy, seeking to eliminate the virus through strict border controls and local closures. Australians could not travel abroad except under extraordinary circumstances and many living abroad could not return, creating difficulties for separated families.
In recent months, Morrison’s government has shifted to an approach to life with COVID that includes open borders and a lighter touch to national restrictions. He implemented the changes just as the highly contagious omicron variant was starting to take hold.
Morrison, who is running for reelection in March, has come under heavy criticism for the new strategy. But he points to Australia’s low death rate and strong economy – both among the best in the world – as proof that he can guide the country through the crisis.
“We have no choice but to ride the wave (of omicron cases),” he said. “What is the alternative? What we need to do is continue. “
Morrison has also been criticized for failing to get antigen testing fast enough to relieve PCR testing sites where wait times in some states have exceeded five hours. He declined to make rapid tests widely available and free.
Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, has been hit hardest by the current wave of omicron, which emerged after Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet eased mask warrants and other rules. Other states have been slower to ease virus restrictions, creating tensions between Australian states and the federal government.
Djokovic’s visa cancellation was not well received in his native Serbia, where he is a national hero. The Serbian president condemned the move and Djokovic’s family expressed their anger at what they described as an affront to the Serbian people.
“You famous Prime Minister (Morrison) of the far away and naturally beautiful land, behave on your own principles, which have nothing to do with us and our principles,” Djokovic’s father Srdan told reporters. “We are humans, and you, sir, are not.”
Djokovic had to wait for court proceedings to end at Melbourne’s low-end Park Hotel. Other residents include refugees and asylum seekers who were transferred from Australian offshore detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. In October, a COVID-19 outbreak at the hotel infected about half of the 46 asylum seekers then detained.
Djokovic’s brother Djordje said the tennis star was “taken to a migrant hotel, to a dirty room with no effect”.
“He was treated like a criminal, despite being a sane and decent man and an athlete who did not put anyone’s life in danger and did not commit any federal or legal offenses,” Djordje added.
Melbourne reported 21,728 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, in addition to six deaths and an increase in hospitalizations. By 9 a.m., 18 state-run PCR testing sites had already reached capacity and closed.
In 2020 and 2021, Melbourne was the most closed city in the world and residents spent 256 days under severe restrictions on travel and gatherings. Djokovic landed in the city in this context, while also refusing to discuss his immunization status or explain why his health exemption was granted.
The process that led to this decision is now under review. Tennis Australia insists that Djokovic’s exemption was granted by an independent panel of medical experts working blindly, ignoring the vaccine applications they were evaluating.
It is not yet clear how Djokovic got on a plane in Dubai and why he was not told he could be turned back at the Australian border. The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday published letters from federal health officials to Tennis Australia making it clear that Djokovic could not enter Australia if the reasons for his vaccine exemption were that he had contracted and recovered from COVID-19 during for the past six months.
The cases of two other Australian Open players who have also been granted health exemptions from needing to be vaccinated are under close scrutiny.
Outside the Park Hotel on Friday, protesters against the detention of asylum seekers held up signs saying “free the refugees”.