MELBOURNE, Australia — When Australia’s prime minister explained on Thursday why his government had barred Novak Djokovic, the men’s tennis superstar, from entering the country, he described it as “simply a matter of following the rules” requiring coronavirus vaccinations for incoming travelers.
“People are put on planes and turned back all the time,” the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said.
But Mr. Djokovic, who had a visa to travel to Australia and a vaccination exemption to compete in the Australian Open, collided not just with the country’s tough border restrictions after arriving at a Melbourne airport. He also found himself at the center of a highly charged moment in Australia’s fight against the coronavirus.
With an election on the horizon, a sharp shift in pandemic strategy — from “Covid-zero” to “living with the virus” — has put Mr. Morrison’s government under intense pressure. Cases have surged to once unimaginable heights, pushing the country’s testing system to the limit and raising anxiety among a population that has already endured long lockdowns.
After nearly two decades of fighting the virus, the Australian authorities started to change their approach late last year when vaccination rates exceeded ambitious thresholds. Harsh restrictions that once kept people from traveling between states or to other countries, or from even leaving their homes, have been replaced by adages about “personal responsibility.”
However, the government was taking a step back just as Omicron began to circulate. On Dec. 27, the country had passed 10,000 daily cases for the first-ever time, and the daily caseload has since risen to more than 60,000.
The number of deaths and hospitalizations has remained stable. But the country’s testing system, devised to trace and suppress small outbreaks, has been overwhelmed by the explosion of cases, with reports of residents lining up for upward of six hours to get PCR tests and waiting nearly a week for results.
Shortages of rapid antigen tests have left shelves empty in supermarkets and pharmacies, and there are concerns over hospital capacity. Reports have suggested that some coronavirus positive nurses have been called back to duty because of staffing issues.
All of that has left little sympathy in Australia for Mr. Djokovic, who has been dismissive toward the pandemic and emerged as professional tennis’s most prominent vaccine skeptic.
This is especially true in Melbourne where the Australian Open takes place. In order to save the rest Australia from the outbreaks, residents were forced to stay in lockdown for 256 consecutive days. Melburnians who are not vaccinated are still prohibited from participating in certain activities. Those who wish to watch the Australian Open must also be vaccinated.
“Against this background of community anxiety and in the context of a public fatigued by extended coronavirus lockdowns and scrambling to access vaccine booster shots,” said Paul Strangio, a politics professor at Monash University in Melbourne, it was inevitable that news of Mr. Djokovic’s vaccination exemption “was going to provoke howls of outrage.”
Morrison, a conservative looking to extend his tenure in the role of prime minister after winning a surprise election in 2019, sees the Djokovic case as an opportunity to change the subject. After days of harsh criticism over his government’s failure to secure adequate supplies of at-home tests and its reluctance to provide them at no charge, he is now championing the country’s strong defense of its borders to safeguard the population.
Morrison seems to be open to the idea of turning Mr. Djokovic aside at the border, as his coalition is trailing in the public polls. The main opposition party has been slamming him for failing to pass rapid antigen test.
“I think the government, under pressure, was looking to make a decision that was broadly popular and which would consume the attention of those watching federal politics,” said Mark Kenny, an expert in politics at the Australian National University.
“Up until this decision, the overwhelming political issue was rapid antigen tests, and suddenly all the attention swings to this dramatic decision,” Professor Kenny added.
There is another way to see the bizarre turn of events that saw Mr. Djokovic being interrogated for hours by border officials, before being sent to quarantine in hotel rooms pending a legal appeal scheduled to take place early next week.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Information
The global surge. The virus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. Therefore, governments are focusing more attention on spreading the virus than limiting it.
After months of confusion about whether Mr. Djokovic would be able to enter the country and who was responsible for deciding, the federal government’s last-minute intervention raised a question: Couldn’t there have been an easier way to resolve this?
On Thursday, Mr. Morrison disclosed that in November, federal authorities wrote to Australian tennis officials to warn them that players with a prior Covid infection would not receive quarantine-free entry to the country. According to reports, the exemption Mr. Djokovic received in his state officials and tournament organizers was based on this basis.
But as late as Wednesday, Mr. Morrison, asked how Mr. Djokovic would be able to enter Australia, had said that it was a “matter for the Victorian government,” adding that “they have provided him with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we then act in accordance with that decision.”
As public anger over the exemption mounted, Mr. Morrison said at a news conference later that day that Mr. Djokovic would “be on the next plane home” if he failed to offer proof that he could not be vaccinated.
“The federal government could have easily made a definitive statement much earlier, which would have left the organizers and Djokovic in no doubt he would not have been able to enter,” Professor Kenny said.
“I do think some people will rightly question, as I do, why it had to be done in what appears to be a sort of deliberately humiliating way,” he added. “And I would say that it’s because it was done for maximum theatrical political value.”
While the border restrictions remain largely popular in Australia, it remains to be seen if the Djokovic situation will work in the government’s favor, Professor Strangio said.
“The politics might yet turn messy,” he said, “since there are lots of unanswered questions such as why Djokovic was granted a visa by the Department of Home Affairs in the first place.”
Source: NY Times