The Djokovic Affair: Anti-Vaccine Sentiments in the COVID-19 Era
By Alamelu, Editor
The 2022 Australian Open started on January 17th, 2022. On January 16th, the man who has won the most Australian Open titles in history was deported from the country. Had he been able to participate in the tournament, Novak Djokovic could have very well become the record holder for winning the most Grand Slam men’s singles titles. Needless to say, the stakes were high for Djokovic. And yet, it can be argued that the reason behind his inability to participate in the tournament was… preventable, on Djokovic’s part.
A Timeline of the Djokovic Affair
But, before we get into that, here is a timeline of the ‘Djokovic Affair’ (as it has been dubbed), for those of us who were not following it:
Australia’s travel restrictions, as of January 2022, require “all foreign visitors entering the country to be double vaccinated” . The day before he was due to arrive in Melbourne, Victoria — where the tournament was being held — Djokovic announced on social media that he had been granted medical exemptions from being vaccinated by two separate Australian medical panels, on the basis of having tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-December 2021.
When Djokovic landed in Melbourne on January 5th, he was detained by the Australian Border Force for “not meeting federal coronavirus requirements” . Djokovic had received one of his exemptions from Victoria’s state government; border control is handled by Australia’s federal government . Early on January 6th, Djokovic’s visa was cancelled, and he was detained in a “notorious immigration detention hotel” for five days.
On January 10th, “an Australian court heard arguments from both the government and Djokovic's lawyers”. Djokovic’s legal team asserted that “the tennis player had been treated unfairly when he arrived”. Judge Anthony Kelly ruled in Djokovic’s favour and reinstated his visa . It is important to note here that the court ruled only on the legality of the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa, as opposed to whether it was the ‘right’ thing for the Australian government to do.
A few days after, Djokovic’s visa was re-cancelled on January 14th by Australia’s Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke. Documents “released as part of the legal proceedings [had] raised questions about Djokovic’s actions,” revealing that he had attended public events, maskless, “immediately after he had tested positive,” and that he had travelled to Serbia within two weeks of his arrival in Australia. Although Djokovic had acknowledged in a statement uploaded to Instagram two days prior that mistakes had been made, Hawke’s “overarching argument for cancelling the visa was that Djokovic’s presence in Australia ‘may pose a health risk to the Australian community’ because it ‘may foster anti-vaccination sentiment’” .
This decision was promptly appealed by Djokovic’s lawyers and the hearing took place on January 16th. The court ruled in favour of the Australian government, with the three-judge panel “unanimously [dismissing] Djokovic’s application to overturn the cancellation”. The Chief Justice clarified that “the ruling was not a reflection on the validity of Hawke’s decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa on Friday” — rather, it was “only on the merits of his decision-making process”.
Djokovic boarded a flight out of Australia to Dubai on the night of January 16th, the eve of the 2022 Australian Open.
Novak Djokovic’s Libertarianism, and Bodily Autonomy
There were some fascinating takeaways from Djokovic’s exclusive interview with the BBC following the ‘Djokovic Affair,’ but perhaps the most significant of them all was his decisiveness when revealing that he was willing to “forego the chance to be the greatest player that ever picked up a racket, statistically,” in order to remain unvaccinated .
When pressed for a reason by the BBC’s Media Editor, Amol Rajan, Djokovic states that “the principles of decision-making on [his] body are more important than any title or anything else” . His determination to prioritise bodily autonomy over the possibility of cementing his status as the world’s greatest male tennis player only serves to underscore his unwavering libertarianism.
Aside: What is Libertarianism?
Libertarianism, as described by Brennan, van der Vossen and Schmidtz (2017), “refers to a body of related views on politics, justice, and economics” . However, at its core, libertarianism is a “political philosophy that takes individual liberty to be the primary political value” . Libertarians “contend that the scope and powers of government should be constrained so as to allow each individual as much freedom of action as is consistent with a like freedom for everyone else” . Under libertarianism, everyone is essentially as free as they can be, so long as their liberty does not obstruct someone else’s.
Interestingly, when asked what he would say to “anti-vaccination campaigners around the world who proudly declare: ‘Novak Djokovic is one of us’,” Djokovic is firm in distinguishing himself from them. He replies that he has “never said that [he is] part of that movement” . As defined in a 2021 study by Benoit and Mauldin, anti-vaxxers are people who “[believe] vaccines do not work, are not safe or refuse vaccines for themselves and their children if applicable” .
This definition does not appear to apply to Djokovic, who does not seem to deny the importance of vaccines in halting the spread of COVID-19. Rather, he is quite simply in favour of bodily autonomy. He expounds on this, expressing that, “as an elite professional athlete, [he has] always carefully reviewed, assessed … anything really that [goes] into [his] body as a fuel” . He adds that, based on “all the information that [he had gotten]” — presumably about his COVID-19 vaccine options — he has “decided not to take the vaccine as of today” .
Djokovic’s awareness of the importance of vaccination in the global fight against COVID-19 and refusal to actually get vaccinated pave the way for the exploration of the conundrum that has plagued multiple governments since distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines first began in 2021. How do you reconcile an individual’s right to make decisions about their own body with scientifically valid public health measures to stop the spread of a harmful, infectious virus when they are diametrically opposed to one another?
Anti-Vaccine Sentiments in Singapore: Iris Koh
According to Our World in Data, approximately 90% of Singapore’s population is fully vaccinated as per the initial vaccination protocol (i.e. excluding the booster shot), as of March 7 this year . For comparison, only about 57% of the world population is fully vaccinated as per the initial vaccination protocol . Despite Singapore’s comparatively high vaccination rates, however, not all Singaporeans have been willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Case in point: Iris Koh.
Iris Koh is “the founder of a group with a known stance against COVID-19 vaccination,” called Healing the Divide. Late January this year, Koh was “charged and remanded over her alleged involvement in a scheme to submit false information to the Ministry of Health (MOH)” . MOH had been investigating a doctor who was suspected of submitting false information to the National Immunisation Registry, in which he had claimed to have administered COVID-19 vaccines when he actually had not.
The police investigated MOH’s report and arrested Koh, the doctor, and the doctor’s assistant on the same day. It appears that Koh had referred other members of Healing the Divide to the same doctor and had also suggested administering something in lieu of the vaccine to patients. Both the doctor and his assistant had “submitted the information” hoping to “induce MOH to issue the Certificate of Vaccination against COVID-19 in the TraceTogether application” .
Additionally, Koh is also being investigated for “allegedly instigating others to call and overwhelm COVID-19 public hotlines” . The police stated that they “take a very serious view of conduct which may pose a public health risk amid the national fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” and added that “offenders will be dealt with sternly, in accordance with the law” .
COVID-19 Vaccines and the Singapore Government
Since the advent and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, the Singapore government has been more insistent than most in requiring its population to get (and remain) fully vaccinated. The government has done more than most to incentivise Singaporeans to get vaccinated as well. These efforts include, but are not limited to :
disseminating up-to-date information directly to the public through its official channels (via WhatsApp and Telegram, for example),
targeting messaging specifically at vaccine-hesitant senior citizens (eg. in their native languages, such as Hokkien and Cantonese, which are not official languages in Singapore), and
ensuring that all Singaporeans have (easy) access to vaccines (such as walk-in vaccinations for the elderly).
Even though the Singapore government has increasingly compelled Singaporeans to get vaccinated by restricting the access of those who have not — unvaccinated folks are disallowed from dining in at restaurants, for example  — it must be reiterated that there has been great effort on the government’s part to educate Singaporeans on COVID-19 vaccines. For instance, simply searching “vaccine information” on Google brings up a MOH page detailing everything one might need to know regarding the COVID-19 vaccine .
More significantly, there is a video linked on the page, in which the chairman of the Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination, Professor Benjamin Ong from the National University of Singapore, discusses how COVID-19 vaccines help, citing relevant statistics too . While it can be said that Singaporeans have limited autonomy in deciding whether or not to get vaccinated, given the harsh restrictions unvaccinated folks are subjected to, it cannot be denied that the government has undertaken serious efforts to educate the population on the usefulness and reliability of the COVID-19 vaccines that are available here.
It definitely helps that Singaporeans tend to be rather compliant, too. Kuah (2018) suggests that Singaporeans are “highly literate and obedient” , which has aided the government’s efforts to encourage the population to get vaccinated in two ways. Firstly, high literacy rates in Singapore can indicate that Singaporeans are typically more receptive to medical suggestions from external sources (eg. the government) that are backed strongly by scientific evidence. Secondly, Singaporeans’ general obedience, particularly towards authority figures, can mean that Singaporeans are more likely to do anything (reasonable) that the government asks of us.
Despite the government’s wide-ranging efforts to maximise vaccination rates within the country, the case of Iris Koh and her associates is clear indication that not even Singapore is exempt from the sweeping influence of the anti-vaccine movement. Before proceeding, I would like to clarify that, although the anti-vaccine movement places heavy emphasis on bodily autonomy, it is often characterised by overwhelming amounts of misinformation as well.
With regards to misinformation, social media is a key driving factor of this issue, due primarily to the ease with which one can post and view content, without the kind of proofreading and peer reviewing that we often see in the publication of newspapers and journal articles. Social media companies play a significant role in this, where both the general public and healthcare professionals have rightfully attributed the rise of misinformation to the lack of efforts by these companies to moderate and prevent such issues from proliferating.
Moreover, as Cheang and Choy (2021) describe it, “Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state in popular culture stems from its highly technocratic and paternalistic approach” . They characterise the ruling party, the People’s Action Party, as “[willing] to make intrusive interventions into the personal lives of its citizens” . The government’s strong insistence that Singaporeans get vaccinated against COVID-19 can be argued to encroach on our right to bodily autonomy, seeing as we are not given significant choice in determining whether to take the vaccine. Thus, Singaporeans who prefer not to be strong-armed into making health-related decisions may have been turned off from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as a result of the government’s harsh policies.
However, the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic is such that a significantly large percentage of a country’s population needs to be (fully) vaccinated in order for it to eventually ease restrictions and lessen the burden of the pandemic on its healthcare system. The dilemma then remains because both parties (ie. governments and individuals) rightfully retain their responsibilities to independently determine the best course of action for their countries and bodies respectively.
All of the aforementioned factors combined provide a sufficiently comprehensive reasoning for Singapore’s vaccination rate at present — why we can achieve such a high vaccination rate, but are still unable to peak at a 100% rate.
To answer the question I posed earlier, it is a deeply challenging task to attempt to reconcile an individual’s right to make decisions regarding their own body with science-backed public health measures to stop the spread of a harmful, infectious virus when they oppose one another. As undesirable as it is, there appears to be no right answer to this dilemma, which is evident in the huge variety of measures different governments have taken.
Governments seem to have based their COVID-19-related decision-making thus far on how collectivist or individualistic their populations are. Countries with more collectivist cultures — where the wellness of the group is prioritised over that of the individual — have implemented more stringent measures, such as mask mandates and strict border controls. Examples include China and, of course, Singapore. On the contrary, countries with more individualistic cultures — where individual freedom takes precedence — have adopted more lenient measures. The UK government, for example, announced earlier this year that it is optional for everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate .
The variation in the choices made by governments of collectivist and individualistic societies regarding COVID-19 restrictions underscores the notion that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the conundrum at hand. Something that works perfectly in one country — or even in one city — might be wholly rejected in another. Further, there might be significant differences of opinion within individual cities and countries themselves as well, as illustrated by the Iris Koh example mentioned above.
Despite how unfortunate it is that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a mainstay in all of our lives for more than two years now, it does enable us to witness first-hand how governments and authorities all over the world continue to attempt reconciling individual rights with societal well-being.
Alamelu is a third-year student majoring in English & Economics and an editor for The Convergence. She’s deeply interested in inequality and the factors that create and sustain it, and hopes to amplify the voices of minorities through her work. When not writing or rushing to meet deadlines, she’s likely knee-deep in oddly specific Internet wormholes or rewatching her comfort television shows.