Djokovic, vaccines, and the pursuit of purity in Europe
Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia is part of a wider conflict in Europe, and beyond, over what it means to be ‘pure’.
Novak Djokovic, the current men’s tennis singles world No. 1, arrived in Melbourne on 5 January 2022 to contest in the Australian Open. He was expected to not only win the Open for a record 10th time but also win a record 21 men’s Grand Slam titles. The only problem he faced, despite having an exemption from the tournament organisers, was that he was unvaccinated. After a dramatic 11-day battle over his COVID-19 vaccination status, Djokovic was deported from Australia on 16 January 2022. His visa was cancelled for the public good by the Australian immigration minister, who declared that Djokovic’s refusal to vaccinate “may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia.”
It can be argued that the actions taken against Djokovic represent a wider conflict in Europe and beyond over what it means to be ‘pure’. Purity – being free from moral or material contamination – has long been associated with aspects of religious life. Now, a new understanding of purity, closely associated with one’s vaccination status against COVID-19, is gaining social and political traction.
Purity before and after COVID-19
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Heidi Larson, a world-leading expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, highlighted that Europe was the most vaccine sceptical region in the world. Part of the reason why this was so, she explained in 2018, was the rise of the purity sentiment among Europeans. Many Europeans were rejecting science and medicine, and instead preferring nature and religion. This ‘pursuit of purity’ resulted in the rise of alternative health practices, and anti-GMO and anti-chemical movements.
It can be argued that with the COVID-19 pandemic, science and medicine have finally caught up to nature and religion. Vaccination has assumed the purifying role that once religion and later nature had enjoyed in Europe. The fact that Djokovic was deported not on the basis of procedure but on the basis of what his unvaccinated status would have meant to the Australian public is, as commentator Mary Harrington highlighted, “more consistent with chastisement than infection control.” This, Harrington further explains, is happening because vaccination is gaining the same social meaning once held by baptism.
A battle of baptisms
The ritual of baptism against COVID-19 is evidently fighting against the much older, religious baptism against vaccination. Devoted to the Serbian Orthodox Church, Djokovic once famously declared that “[b]efore I am an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.” He was also notably honoured in 2011 by Patriarch Irinej for his dedication and generosity to the Church. Like many vaccine-hesitant Eastern Europeans, he appears to be placing his trust in God rather than science or medicine.
The conflict between his religious credentials and his vaccination hesitancy is in many ways a story of Serbia itself. Serbia, a majority Orthodox Christian country, has the seventh-lowest vaccination rate in Europe. A few days before Djokovic was deported, the Head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, tested positive for COVID-19. Porfirije had notably become the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church after Patriarch Irinej died of COVID-19 in 2020.
Although Porfirije has publicly called on people to get vaccinated and respect preventative measures, many clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church still do not support wearing masks during religious ceremonies or congregations in church, or vaccination. Many worshippers, therefore, have continued to pursue religious practice without vaccination or prevention. This is despite the fact Serbia just reported its highest numbers of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.
A troubling future ahead?
The saga of Djokovic’s flight out of Australia is perhaps the first of many episodes of the conflict between the two duelling conceptions of purity. As governments, particularly in Europe, double down on vaccination, the conflict between vaccine-accepting and vaccine-hesitant people will most likely continue. Moreover, it is likely to also intensify, given this conflict has taken on the righteous attributes of cancel culture. Djokovic, in many ways, was not only physically removed from Australia but also excluded from a fully-vaccinated society. What will be interesting to watch, once he returns to Serbia, is how he will be socially included in a largely unvaccinated country.