16 February 2022

Djoke’s aside – anti-vaxxers aren’t the biggest problem in the pandemic

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It will come as a no surprise to students of Novak Djokovic’s career that he ‘has always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body’. Here, after all, is a man who eschews gluten but is happy to eat the grass at Wimbledon.

But it’s not the tennis player’s unusual diet that’s currently raising eyebrows, it’s his stance on Covid vaccines. In an interview with the BBC’s Amol Rajan, his first since being deported from Melbourne, Djokovic admitted that he has not been vaccinated, and views being barred from future tennis tournaments as ‘a price [he’s] willing to pay’.

This has, predictably, stoked accusations that he’s a ‘poster-boy’ for vaccine refuseniks and a danger to public health. This is despite the fact that Djokovic was clear in the interview that he ‘was never against vaccination’, had vaccines as a child, and that his was a purely personal choice driven by belief in freedom of physical autonomy and his slightly weird attitude to what he consumes. 

Of course, some hardcore anti-vaxxers are keen to clutch Djokovic to their breasts, even as he very deliberately tries to keep them at arm’s length. His achievements are such that people will always want to associate themselves with him, whether that’s buying his branded sports kit or claiming he shares their views – that’s hardly his fault. You can argue that his fame carries certain responsibilities, but it’s not as though conspiracy theorists need a high-profile figurehead to believe their nonsense, any old internet crank will usually do.

Some have condemned his refusal to get the vaccine because it presents a danger to others, likening it to passive smoking. This is a claim which stands up only insofar as the evidence of risk from second-hand smoke is massively overblown. The giant wave of Omicron we’re currently experiencing in highly vaccinated countries proves the jabs don’t stop you transmitting the virus. And as far as Djokovic is personally concerned, he’s already had Covid twice (albeit, his second positive test was very conveniently timed to gain him a medical exemption to get into Australia). 

Then there are those who deride his position as ‘selfish’ and acting ‘like a demi-God’ – to which I say, what was it you found so surprising about the multimillionaire world-famous sports star being a bit arrogant?

Frankly one individual’s medical decision is irrelevant in the face of a virus that will eventually infect the vast majority of us, and if these were normal times we’d recognise how sinister and illiberal this fascination with an extremely healthy young man’s immune system is. 

The greater danger than one unvaccinated sports star is in demonising people who may have perfectly legitimate reasons to be sceptical about vaccines, and in letting misplaced anger at anti-vaxxers get in the way of the ongoing fight against coronavirus. We have already seen how authoritarian attitudes to the unvaccinated have taken hold in Austria and France, and even in Britain there are powerful voices calling for the unvaccinated to be ‘punished’.

But not everyone who refuses to get vaccinated is a social reject with a pamphlet and a survival bunker. Whatever you think of Djokovic’s rationalisations, there are plenty of sympathetic reasons for vaccine hesitancy. 

In Britain the overwhelming evidence is that it’s pregnant women and ethnic minorities that are the least likely to be vaccinated. Let’s start with pregnant women. As I have written on these pages before, being dubious about the vaccine if you’re pregnant is completely understandable, not least because expectant mothers were warned against getting the jabs when they first became available. So much pre-natal advice is counter-intuitive – if you won’t eat brie because you’re pregnant then forgoing a brand new vaccine isn’t a stretch.

Then there’s the research that shows mothers are being actively targeted by bad actors seeking to profit from snake-oil cures. These ‘influencers’ peddle sexist tropes around the ‘protective’ and ‘intuitive’ nature of motherhood to promote vaccine refusal. Instead of judging women let’s call out the people manipulating them.

Turning to ethnic minorities, Rakib Ehsan has written compellingly about the many complex reasons behind the relatively low uptake of vaccines by Black African and Black Caribbean Brits. Among them is a mistrust of public institutions that have often treated these communities appallingly. 

It’s not too much of a leap to suggest a similar force is driving lower vaccination rates in Serbia – a country whose recent history includes two wars and a genocide. Perhaps its people also have perfectly sensible doubts about their country’s use of Russian and Chinese vaccines. Either way, the causes of Serbia’s vaccine hesitancy are complicated. But of course it’s far easier to blame the country’s biggest celebrity – Novak Djokovic.

And even the comparatively low proportion of Serbs who are fully vaccinated (47.7%) dwarfs that of the rest of the world. While wealthy countries have enthusiastically embraced the vaccines, just 10.6% of people in low income countries have been able to get them.

Lambasting the tiny minority of unvaccinated people in the west, some of whom may have legitimate anxieties, is completely counterproductive. Worse, it’s a distraction from the real work of getting the jabs out to the places that desperately need them.

As for Britain, what better way to show the world we’ve beaten Covid than to welcome Djokovic to Wimbledon this summer – maybe he’ll even eat our grass.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.