No matter your politics or judgment on the COVID-19 vaccine, we can agree that the visuals of the world’s number one tennis player being detained and treated like a criminal when he went to the Australian Open last year were unsettling, and the Australian government should have better handled his case. To recap, Mr. Djokovic flew to Australia in January 2022 on a vaccine exemption as he had a COVID-19 infection in the middle of December 2021. The immigration officer canceled his visa, and he was isolated. The government moved Mr. Djokovic to a quarantine hotel with minimal facilities. The case went to court a couple of days later, and a judge ruled in his favor and ordered his release. The judge reinstated his visa and ordered the government to bear all expenses.
It could have ended there, but you don’t get to thumb your nose at the bureaucrats. The Australian immigration minister, a smaller man (in height), canceled Mr. Djokovic’s visa for the second time, sending him back to the lovely quarantine hotel. He appealed, but a judge turned down the appeal as it’s the immigration minister’s prerogative, and he got deported from Australia. The vaccinated population cheered. A human race already divided by race, sex, nationality, religion, and a hundred other factors by the ruling class had just been divided again: the pro-vaccine vs. the anti-vaccine crowd. Mr. Djokovic exposed the haphazard vaccine policy as he went on to play in the French Open and Wimbledon tournaments (which he won). Still, the United States government refused him entry for the U.S. Open. Mr. Djokovic, for his part, remained dignified but firm in his choices.
We now know that the COVID-19 vaccines reduce but do not prevent virus transmission. Most studies show that regardless of your vaccination status, virus shedding load is the same once infected by the delta variant. The vaccine reduces the individual’s risk of hospitalization and death. In retrospect, the vaccine policy that restricted travel and work was based more on hope than objective hard scientific data and has been corrected since. There is no need to be vaccinated to travel to the U.S. anymore. The Center for Medicare Services, the Department of Defense, and most employers have withdrawn their vaccine mandates. The world was in crisis then, and we had to take these steps in the best interest of the human population. Still, the truth remains that there wasn’t enough evidence to enforce these policies that resulted in untold misery for a significant population. The individual right to choose was not just taken away but was ridiculed and punished.
For the record, I believe in the COVID-19 vaccines. My family and I are vaccinated, and I recommend the vaccine to my patients per the CDC guidelines. Like any other medical intervention, I review the risks and benefits and let my patients make an informed decision. Mandates bring up a tricky question as to who is responsible for a side effect that ensues. While mRNA vaccines are low risk, there is a small risk (12.6 cases per million doses of the second dose) of myocarditis. The incidence is highest in younger males, which may have been on athletes’ minds. The argument that the unvaccinated are a more significant burden on health care is an issue, but so are patients that make many lifestyle and treatment choices that are not conducive to their health, including but not limited to eating, smoking, weight, medication non-compliance, substance use. Without concrete data, we do not penalize personal choices.
The world is changing, and there will always be a crisis after crisis. The human race has yet to precisely render itself proud by how we handle ourselves in trouble. We learned from this one and will hopefully deal with the next one more thoughtfully and kindly. Last week, the CDC and the FDA approved the latest mRNA boosters. The CDC recommends vaccine boosters for everyone over the age of six months. They are updated versions of the existing mRNA vaccines and have been formulated to target a relatively recent omicron subvariant called XBB.1.5. There are already newer variants since this vaccine has been developed. Most of these variants are covered by this latest booster. The immunity to prevent severe disease is expected to last up to a year.
As for Mr. Djokovic, “The Joker” has had the last laugh. He won the Australian Open earlier this year (he had a three-year ban revoked) and went on to win the U.S. Open, showing us that individuality and perseverance can win against all odds. The sight of him lifting his record U.S. Open championship trophy with a flashing Moderna sign in the background couldn’t have been better scripted. The joke this time was on us.
Dinesh Arab is a cardiologist.