Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Novak Djokovic Should Play in the U.S. Open
The vaccine discourse has long jumped the shark
Novak Djokovic, one of the three greatest male tennis players of all-time—and maybe, when the dust settles, the best ever—just won his fourth straight Wimbledon title. Besting the absurdly talented and extremely mercurial Nick Kyrgios, Djokovic captured his 21st Grand Slam singles title overall, putting him one behind Rafael Nadal for the most ever. Still playing his best tennis, Djokovic could jump into a tie with Nadal soon enough.
But that soon won’t be until at least 2023. There is one Grand Slam left in the calendar year, the U.S. Open, and Djokovic won’t be playing in at all. Since he refuses to get the COVID-19 vaccine, he is barred from entering the United States as a foreigner unless he gets a medical exemption. He won’t have one. Djokovic seems at peace with his decision. He confirmed on July 10th he won’t get vaccinated to play in New York City. If he maintains his opposition to getting vaccinated, he’ll be blocked from playing in the Australian Open in early 2023. He won’t have another chance to catch up to Nadal until the French Open next spring.
The common reaction to Djokovic is to chastise him for his anti-science position and demand he gets vaccinated. It’s the same position much of the media establishment took against the confounding Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving. Both men, among the top players in their sport, have been derided for refusing a vaccine that millions have taken to protect themselves. Their reasoning, to many, is inscrutable and selfish. Djokovic has denied any association with the wider anti-vaccine movement, but he is an easy villain for the tennis world, especially those on the left.
Few elite journalists, pundits, and general sports observers want to acknowledge one obvious reality: there is no pressing reason for Djokovic to get vaccinated. He is a 35-year-old world-class athlete. He is highly unlikely to get very ill or die from the coronavirus. Negative health outcomes from Covid are still widely correlated with age and various risk factors, like obesity and chronic medical conditions. Through every phase of the pandemic, this has held true. Young, healthy people can get sick and die from Covid. The odds, however, are overwhelmingly against this happening. Djokovic, who has contracted Covid in the past, is willing to risk battling the virus again. Considering his peak physical condition and whatever lingering immunity he’s retained, the threat for a debilitating infection is probably low.
What is the purpose of a vaccine requirement? For some stretches of the pandemic, there was an argument to make that the vaccinated were less likely to contract Covid and spread it to others. This seemed to do be true before the Covid variants emerged. Beginning with the Delta variant, which caused breakthrough infections in the recently vaccinated, and continuing on with Omicron, which was so transmissible that vaccination status could no longer safeguard against an infection, this truism of Covid changed. The unvaccinated and the vaccinated were equally unsafe if your goal was to simply avoid getting infected. The new subvariants of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, transmit even more easily than the original Omicron. In the summer of 2022, no one can claim, with a straight face, vaccines halt the spread of Covid. They don’t.
Recently, I was infected with Covid for the very first time. In part, I can attribute this to my relative cautiousness in 2020 and 2021. I masked up indoors, avoided many large social gatherings, and did not board an airplane until May 2022. It seemed the latest subvariants were reserved for people like me: those who through caution or simple dumb luck dodged Covid in prior waves. I’m vaccinated and boosted; I’m also 32 and lucky enough to lack any health complications. My case was very mild. At worst, it was cold symptoms and a degree of lethargy. Considering that a growing number of people, even after vaccination, are getting infected with Covid for the second or third time, I fully expect to get it again in the future. That is what a virus does.
The good news is that the latest variants appear milder. If the nightmare scenario of 2021 was that Covid could repeatedly infect the vaccinated, 2022 has shown us that cases can skyrocket while deaths only increase slightly. The daily Covid death toll is still too high—more than 300 a day nationwide—but is nowhere near the peaks seen during the Delta wave and before, when thousands died every day. Everyone should get vaccinated because the vaccines still safeguard against hospitalization and death. It’s incredibly important that the elderly get vaccinated and boosted. The federal government must invest far more in developing new vaccines to protect against future variants. Through better vaccines and highly effective hospital treatments—Paxlovid was a start, but we need more options—the pandemic will finally end. We are getting there. Progress is being made.
Getting every single person vaccinated in America will drive the death rate downward, but it won’t stop Covid’s spread. The virus will keep mutating on its own, eventually becoming endemic. In this context, vaccine mandates and passports are useless. Almost all cities and states have ended them, with good reason: they’re a cudgel to get people vaccinated but do little else. Omicron tore through New York City when a large majority of the eligible population was vaccinated. To guard against Covid in the future, the federal government should treat the Covid vaccine like the flu vaccine, promoting booster campaigns and urging the most vulnerable populations to stay up to date on their shots. Vaccinating and boosting as many elderly and immunocompromised people as possible will go a long way toward keeping ICU beds empty.
What won’t matter, at all, is a policy that keeps an unvaccinated 35-year-old Serbian athlete from entering the United States. Djokovic will not spread Covid any more than I will, as a fully vaccinated 32-year-old American. The subvariants no longer care about vaccination status. We are all equals when it comes to failing to stop the spread. Keeping Djokovic out of the United States and the U.S. Open, from a science standpoint, is a farce. Lifting these sort of vaccine requirements will end one more element of pandemic theater; in the future, the restrictions on Djokovic’s travel will appear as curious and outdated as our 2020 obsessions with roping off playground equipment and aggressively sanitizing supermarket groceries. At some point, we will all stop playing pretend.
Political Currents by Ross Barkan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.