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What the Novak Djokovic saga reveals about the Age of Covid

🔴 Amitabh Mattoo writes: The tennis champion has become a symbol for the critical concerns about global issues that we are confronted with today.

Written by Amitabh Mattoo |
Updated: January 12, 2022 7:48:01 pm
For most residents of Melbourne, who have experienced the harshest and longest lockdown over the last two years, a visa for Djokovic is an insult to the months of confinement. (File Photo)

It is ironical that one of the world’s richest and most recognisable sportsmen, the tennis champion, Novak Djokovic, has become a symbol for critical concerns about global issues that we are confronted with in the Age of Covid. These include the most subaltern of anxieties about borders and sovereignty; the multiple layers of global, federal and provincial bureaucratic control; and the malleable nature of national and global public health policies rooted in what seems to be, for at least lay people, the politics of continuously elusive science-based evidence.

Djokovic is, of course, an unlikely leader of these causes and not what his father would have us imagine: A modern-day Spartacus leading a revolt of the “slaves” against their oppressors and tyrants. As minutiae of Djokovic’s biography are dissected in the media, we know that one of the most gifted tennis players in the history of the game is a fierce Serbian nationalist and that his views on science, spirituality and vaccinations are unconventional, if not plain dodgy. Djokovic’s curious, complex and colourful worldview may make many of his fans squirm, but in his native Serbia and elsewhere, as recent events have testified, his popularity is unchallenged even as he has publicly voiced his scepticism about vaccines.

While Australian commentators have been shocked by Djokovic’s views, surely we in India should have greater tolerance given our own eclectic sensibilities. More to the point, Djokovic’s “cocky” attitude, his eccentricities and his beliefs are an unnecessary diversion from the core concerns — to use Foucault’s now rather tired and clichéd phrase — about governmentality at the national and trans-national level.

The story does not end there. The Rydges on Swanston Street in Melbourne, reborn a few months ago as the Park Hotel, is an unlikely venue for the Djokovic saga. Situated at the cusp of Melbourne’s thriving CBD (central business district) and Melbourne University’s robust Parkville campus, you would be inclined to turn your head away at this 1970s’ architectural abomination as you rode past in the No 16 tram.

For the most part, we used it to host academic visitors who spent much of their time on the campus rather than in the grim hotel. During the pandemic, it was used as a quarantine facility, and almost single-handedly contributed to the second wave in Melbourne. Initially, the media had reported that “inappropriate” contact in the hotel between a security guard and a woman traveller had led to the spread of the virus in the western suburbs. A later inquiry ruled this out, but Rydges acquired the sobriquet as the “outbreak hotel”, until asylum-seekers and stateless refugees were interned in its precincts, including those waiting for years for their cases to be decided.

Two of the refugees held in the hotel, for instance, from the persecuted Ahwazi Arab Iranian minority arrived in Australia as children and are still waiting to be rehabilitated. By demonstrating its natural inclination to be fair and egalitarian, and by holding Djokovic at the Park Hotel, the authorities unwittingly gave the refugees more media attention than they may have had in years.

Borders always have been instruments of territorial sovereignty as well as the ways to define and exclude Others. Within sections of Australian public opinion, controlling borders has been seen as a way of preserving a way of life. During the years of the pandemic, this acquired a bizarre dimension. For the first two years of the pandemic, it became almost impossible for citizens and permanent residents to return to Australia as the policy was designed to seal Australia to suppress the virus. However, even with the most stringent quarantine policies in place, there were celebrities who managed to evade isolating in designated facilities and were seen reveling in mansions.

But today, Australia is just a symbol for a global refugee crisis caused by multiple conflicts and international travel crises accentuated by the rules regarding visa, entry, testing and quarantine to control Covid and consequently undermining the real promise of globalisation and a less Westphalian world. Ironically, many refugees may have been kept out, but the virus has overwhelmed much of the country.

The Djokovic saga also revealed, at the very least, the manner in which at least three authorities botched up the case: Tennis Australia, the Victorian government and the federal government in Canberra, in a year in which the popularity of the federal government will be tested at the general election.

The transcript of the interviews, presented in court, between border control officials and the sportsman revealed a Kafkaesque bureaucracy unwilling to be reasonable or respond sensitively to reasonable requests. We witness an apparently transparent, straightforward, honest but somewhat confused Djokovic being confronted by rules and subjected to questions, almost to the point of harassment. As the federal judge pointed out: “The point I’m somewhat agitated about is: What more could this man have done?”

For most residents of Melbourne, who have experienced the harshest and longest lockdown over the last two years, a visa for Djokovic, however, is an insult to the months of confinement. In the last two years, in addition, we have seen the full play of federal politics even while there have been regular meetings of the national cabinet (with the prime minister and state premiers as members). Within the broad framework of a national policy, each state has devised its own rules sometimes with bizarre consequences. Till a few weeks ago, it was easier to travel from New York to Perth than from Victoria to Western Australia.

Tragically, the Djokovic story reveals the manner in which the science of the virus, the scientific evidence and the potency of vaccinations has tested the patience of a global audience mostly willing to accept the verdict without scepticism. But the danger is that since the advent of Omicron, as norms regarding social distancing, close contacts, RAT versus PSR tests and quarantining have been discarded — even as the virus has spread like wildfire — politics may be driving the science and the public policies being formulated.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2022 under the title ‘A letter from Melbourne’. The writer is honorary professor at the University of Melbourne and professor at JNU. He is currently based in Melbourne

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