Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in 2021. (Matt King via Getty Images)

Let Djokovic Play

Barring the tennis champion from the U.S. Open has nothing to do with science or public health.

The credibility and legitimacy of public health demands two things. The rules have to make sense; they can’t be nakedly contradictory. And the rules have to benefit people. You can’t demand jumping through hoops merely for optics.

The treatment of the tennis star Novak Djokovic, who is officially blocked from competing in this year’s U.S. Open, set to begin on Monday, violates both. Keeping him from playing because he has not received a Covid-19 vaccine undermines the credibility of the White House, which set the policy, and public health more broadly. I’m saying this both as a Democrat and a doctor gravely concerned about eroded trust in our institutions.

Djokovic is one of the best tennis players of all time. He is currently vying for most majors of any champion (21 to date), competing with Rafael Nadal (22) and Roger Federer (20).  But there will forever be an asterisk next to those comparisons because Djokovic is banned from entering the U.S. to compete in this year’s U.S. Open because of a byzantine rule that non-U.S. citizens cannot enter the country without proof of vaccination.

This rule makes no sense from a medical or public health standpoint. 

Consider the facts. Djokovic is 35 years old, and he is in terrific health. He has had and recovered from Covid-19 twice. This—and the fact that current variants are less lethal than prior strains—means that Djokovic’s odds of doing well were he to get sick with Covid-19 again are remarkably good, and lower than his risk of seasonal influenza.  If Djokovic gets a vaccine at this moment it would be against the ancestral, Wuhan strain of the coronavirus and there is no good evidence this would further improve his odds.

Now consider Djokovic’s risk to others.  At least 140 million Americans have had and recovered from Covid-19 as of January (this number is higher today), and both vaccinated and unvaccinated can spread the disease. Data shows, when infected, that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals shed virus at similar rates and for similar durations. Forcing Djokovic to get vaccinated won’t protect others. Sars-cov-2 will circulate in the United States for a thousand years whether we let Djokovic in, or keep him out forever.

Then, there are the absurd contradictions in our current rules. Unvaccinated American citizens can move freely in and out of the country without testing. Unvaccinated people can pack the stadium to watch this year’s U.S. Open, where face masks are optional. There is no vaccine or testing requirement to attend. Worst of all, Novak Djokovic competed in last year’s U.S. Open, where he made the finals before the travel rule barring his entry was in place.  

Joe Biden, who made the rule that blocks Djokovic, has received four Covid-19 vaccine doses. He has had Covid-19 twice, and taken at least 2 courses of Paxlovid. His wife, first lady Jill Biden, has also had four vaccine doses, also had Covid-19 twice. Yet, for some reason, their concern is the Novak Djokovics of the world.

Some view Djokovic’s struggle as self imposed—that he’s an arrogant athlete who thinks he’s exempt from the herd. In all honesty, If I were him, I would have gotten the vaccine in early 2021 (as I did), prior to having had Covid-19. But Djokovic is entitled to make his choices about his body, and public health cannot infringe upon those choices unless the intrusion is justified by a clear and overwhelming benefit to others. That standard is simply not met.

In 2022, it is delusional to think that blocking Djokovic from coming to America serves any purpose other than shredding the last bits of trust and legitimacy public health has. Because of how the government has handled its response to Covid-19, many Americans will never trust the pronouncements of public health officials again. Before Covid-19, I would have tried to dissuade such individuals from this response. Now I can only say that I see their point.

Dr. Vinay Prasad’s last piece for Common Sense laid out ten lessons from the pandemic. You can listen to his episode of Honestly here.

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