A tennis star is an unlikely target for a politician, but these are hard times for Scott Morrison. His approval rating is plummeting, he needs a good fight and fate seems to have handed him the perfect enemy. The unvaccinated Novak Djokovic, arriving in Australia in apparent defiance of the law, embodies something everyone loves to hate: an international celebrity flouting rules that others must obey. Public opinion is inflamed and Morrison is getting stuck in. “Rules are rules,” he says.
He should know. His rules isolated Australia from the rest of the world for the better part of two years with a Zero Covid strategy that meant sitting tight, waiting for vaccines and then reopening. The flaw was obvious all along: what if vaccines never offered complete protection? At some point, they’d have to come out. So in recent months Morrison has been in slow retreat, moving Australia from a hermit kingdom to embracing a learn-to-live-with-it strategy. Politically, socially and clinically it has been an uncomfortable journey.
Omicron means Australia’s protection isn’t quite what it could have been. Ninety-two per cent of Australian over-16s are double jabbed, but it’s boosters that make the big difference against omicron and just 14 per cent of Aussies are triple jabbed. Morrison is reopening anyway, arguing that a far milder threat should mean a milder strategy. Sydney and Melbourne moved out of lockdown ten weeks ago and Australia’s borders are once again open to (jabbed) skilled migrants and students.
Meanwhile, the virus is running through Australia at a rate never seen before. More Covid cases have been recorded in the past eight days than in the previous two years. Its test-and-trace system is being overwhelmed, with isolation locking up so many people that Morrison had to relax the rules. But as cases surge, Melbourne’s reopening continues – after having spent more time locked down than any other city in the world. Hosting the Australian Open this month is the kind of reopening tonic it needs. Thrashing England at cricket is helping, too: Cricket Australia has been determined not to let Covid stop the Ashes.
Local politicians are adopting a new language. Dominic Perrottet, premiere of New South Wales, has said the hospitals are ready. Brad Hazzard, his health secretary, has declared that “we’re all going to get omicron”, a complete change in strategy. Morrison needs to call an election by May: he’s lagging in the polls and needs a success story. The omicron wave just might be over by then.
Emmanuel Macron also has an election coming up, and recently found cause to pick a fight with the unvaccinated. They are an easy target: easily caricatured as selfish refuseniks, whose obstinacy is dragging down the whole country. Macron this week promised to “emmerder” (a word best left untranslated) the unjabbed. Such tough language tends to go down well, and we can expect more of it in the coming months. For politicians standing for election, the unvaccinated are a perfect punching bag.
For all of his athletic prowess, Djokovic is quite the quack: against vaccination in principle and also believing that polluted water can be purified by the power of prayer (“scientists have proven”, he once said, “that molecules in water react to our emotions”). But it seems that he was one of several unvaccinated tennis players approved for a visa to Australia via a “blind review”: if so, it’s hard to see how he qualified for special treatment. It looks more like he’s been given special mistreatment, having his visa revoked because he presents an irresistible political target.
A few years ago, Djokovic’s health fads might have been seen as a quixotic but irrelevant personal choice. Now, vax-dodging is seen as a dangerous self-indulgence that wider society cannot afford. The world over, there’s a trend towards speaking about the unvaccinated as if they should suffer “consequences” and not have the same rights as others. Unjabbed Australians in the Northern Territory are being subjected to a four-day lockdown, for example, even though the jabbed-but-not-yet-boosted are perfectly capable of spreading omicron.
Are such policies about protecting society, or about the need to “emmerder” the new enemy within? Singapore says it won’t pay Covid medical bills for the unvaccinated. France wants to ban them from cafés, gyms and museums. Unvaccinated Canadians cannot board planes or trains. A fertility clinic in Glasgow is denying treatment to unjabbed women: more such strictures can be expected. The unjabbed take a risk: they are at least six times more likely to end up in intensive care through Covid. But it’s harder to argue (as some do) that this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. Even now, the vaccinated account for just over half of Covid emergency admissions.
It’s easy to think of the unjabbed as millionaire tennis stars or middle-class conspiracy theorists like Piers Corbyn. But in Britain we have a clearer picture, being one of the very few countries to keep tabs. At the last count (December 29), they were – disproportionately – the poor, the young and ethnic minorities. Just over half of black under-30s, for example, are still not vaccinated, vs 27 per cent of whites. The poorest are three times as likely to be unjabbed as the richest.
But this is no surprise. For years studies have shown that those on the margins of society have been less likely to be vaccinated. From MMR to flu jabs, a vaccine gap has always existed and reflected socioeconomic status. Huge steps have been taken to try to close it but, for complicated reasons (often relating to trust in authority), it’s hard work. Hounding or insulting the unvaccinated – fining them, quarantining them or calling them “idiots” as Tony Blair does – is unlikely to succeed. But it certainly will succeed in alienation, deepening a sense of them and us.
As the world’s No 1 tennis player and the defending champion of the Australian Open, Djokovic can do pretty much what he wants with his life. But he’s a poor poster boy for the unvaccinated. To make them public enemies would be to make a bad situation far worse. Boris Johnson has said he’d like to “build back better” after Covid. Declining to join the global pile-on against the unvaccinated can be part of it. The vaccine gap has long presented a problem: now, perhaps, more than ever. But there are far better ways of solving it.