Novak Djokovic’s exemption proves Australia’s hardline Covid stance does not apply to rich and famous

Novak Djokovic would be well-advised to resist his trademark “heart-throwing” celebration on Rod Laver Arena this time. Judging by the derision heaped on his medical exemption to pursue a 10th Australian Open title, he is poised to be the country’s least popular visitor since Katie Hopkins was deported last year for her boasts about breaching hotel quarantine. “An insult to millions of Australians who have done the right thing,” is how one former Melbourne politician characterises the move to let in the unvaccinated world No 1.

This is far from a minority view. A city that has endured six lockdowns, and where proof of being double-jabbed is demanded as a condition of entry to every communal space, is unlikely to take kindly to tennis’ foremost vaccine sceptic being ushered through the VIP lane at Tullamarine Airport. And yet the haste to condemn Djokovic, to regard him as emblematic of sports stars’ entitlement, is driven far more by emotion than logic.

For a start, he is not the first guest of Australia to be spared edicts imposed on the general population. In 2020, for example, there was allegedly a no-exceptions policy on 14-day hotel quarantine – only for Lord Sugar, filming his Celebrity Apprentice series in Sydney, to be allowed to isolate at a private residence. There is nothing quite like a pandemic, it seems, for highlighting the tension between Australia’s love of hard-and-fast rules and its genuflection at the altar of international celebrity.

Not only were Australian Open officials wary of sparking a diplomatic incident by excluding Djokovic, they were also acutely aware of the need to attract a player of his pulling power. Theirs is a tournament wounded by the absence of crowd favourite Roger Federer, and still nursing a £53 million hit after holding last year’s instalment in the strictest of bio-secure bubbles.

Spurning Djokovic no longer makes any sense on epidemiological grounds either. Having spent two years imagining it could hold Covid-19 at bay indefinitely, Australia is now drowning under the omicron surge. In Victoria, a state where an extraordinary 93 per cent of over-12s are fully vaccinated, there were 14,020 cases on Tuesday: a positivity rate of over 23 per cent, one of the highest in the world. Despite the seductive populism of the “one rule for Novak, one rule for everyone else” argument, the raw numbers of Australia’s predicament do not suggest that his arrival is about to add to its problems.

Essentially, the resentment towards Djokovic can be distilled to one powerful truth: that Melburnians, indeed anybody who has had to live through lockdown cycles, desperately want to believe that their sacrifice has served a purpose. Given the ludicrous overreach of the Victorian government during the worst periods, with people at risk of huge fines for venturing barely half a mile beyond their place of residence, this instinct is understandable. When you have had “the rules” drummed into you ad nauseam by an overzealous state premier, you will hardly relish the prospect of a multimillionaire tennis player running roughshod over the same procedures.

The elite vs the public

The inconvenient reality, though, is that this gap between the freedoms of elite athletes and those of the general public has been a feature of the Covid age. Late last year, when the people of Merseyside were under Tier Three restrictions, hardly able to move outside their own streets, several Liverpool and Everton players were at liberty to travel to World Cup qualifying matches in South America. The rationale is simple: without some relaxations of freedom of movement, even events on the scale of the Tokyo Olympics would never have happened.

Granting Djokovic a medical dispensation might seem dubious when every single attendee at Melbourne Park this year is required to show proof of vaccination. Why should he be any different? Quite simply, because he is a 20-time major champion, whose very appearance in Australia confers priceless prestige on an event still struggling financially. You can say, of course, that this makes a mockery of state rules. But for all Victoria’s hyper-vigilance, its test results suggest as many as one in four in the state are carrying the virus: not exactly a convincing advert for the power of vaccine mandates. How will Djokovic be making the situation any worse than it is already? Yes, his presence in Melbourne will be wildly controversial, a source of antagonism for weeks to come. But that alone does not make it wrong.

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