Djokovic ‘could cause harm’ with Covid vaccine comments – medical ethicist

The tennis ace has spoken out for the first time since he was denied the chance to compete in the Australian Open because of his jab decision.

15 February 2022

Novak Djokovic’s comments about Covid-19 vaccination will “cause harm”, a medical ethicist has argued.

His views are “enormously influential” could “reinforce beliefs” among people who are not as fit and healthy as the tennis star, according to Professor Dominic Wilkinson.

The professor of medical ethics at the University of Oxford said that the response to the coronavirus pandemic should be collective and suggested that libertarian views on vaccination of “my body, my decision, my choice” present a “fundamental ethical problem”.

But Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, said that the tennis ace had been “vilified”.

Djokovic was deported from Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open last month amid concerns over his vaccine status.

The Serbian tennis star told the BBC he was “never against vaccination”, but insisted: “I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body.”

He told the broadcaster that he had “always been a great student of wellness, wellbeing, health, nutrition” and said that he would be willing to forgo future tournaments if mandatory jabs are a condition to compete.

He added: “The reason why I was deported from Australia was because the Minister for Immigration used his discretion to cancel my visa based on his perception that I might create some anti-vax sentiment in the country or in the city, which I completely disagree with.”

Commenting on the interview, Prof Wilkinson told the PA news agency: “It seems to me that he doesn’t have a political agenda, that he isn’t aiming to spread his views about vaccines, but nevertheless, his views – as evidenced in this high profile interview – are enormously influential.

“So one thing which he doesn’t take into account, which I think somebody who is in the public eye should take into account, is that their behaviour will influence other people.

“One ethical reason why people who are in the public eye ought to behave in a way that is in a sense, a kind of higher standard than everybody else, is because the behaviour is very influential, it teaches other people how to behave.

“So if somebody who is an incredibly high-profile high-achieving sportsman doesn’t have the vaccine and says so publicly, and there’s lots of attention to it, even if that’s not his intention, that will have the effect of supporting that those who are opposed to the vaccine.”

Prof Wilkinson added: “The fundamental ethical problem with a libertarian approach to vaccines, which is ‘my body, my decision, my choice’, is that vaccines are not just about you – they’re about all of us.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic said he was ‘never against vaccination’ (Steven Paston/PA)

“Our response to infections like coronavirus is a collective response – this is something we are all in together. It’s not enough to say: ‘I’m at low risk. I’m not going to get sick.’

“You’ve also got to take into account that possibility that you’ll spread the virus to others. So I think that’s the flaw in his kind of thinking about himself.

“And of course, that extends to the messages that he sends, because it’s all very well for him to say: ‘I don’t want to have the vaccine. I’m a super-fit athlete, I’m not at risk.’

“But when he comes out and says it in such a public way that does cause harm, because it potentially reinforces that those beliefs among other people who aren’t like him super-fit and healthy, and who may well be at serious risk of getting ill.

“So I think that’s the kind of problem with the short-sighted, self-centred libertarian view about vaccines.”

Djokovic was deported ahead of the Australian Open over his vaccination status (Mike Egerton/PA)

Prof Savulescu said that the general view that people should be “free to do whatever they want with their body” was “too extreme”.

He told PA: “There are going to be obviously circumstances where we’re not free to do as we like with our bodies when we represent a serious threat to other people.

“So I think his extreme form of libertarianism is one that’s difficult to defend, but in the current circumstances, given that he has had Covid and there are other ways of reducing his risk, I think he should be allowed a degree of freedom.”

He said that if Djokovic had Covid in December 2021 he posed “no greater risk than any of the other players” in the Australian Open.

Prof Savulescu added: “Personally, I think it’s absurd that somebody can’t express their views and we can have even a slightly nuanced understanding of the requirements for vaccination and its limits.
And if he did indeed have natural immunity, he wasn’t a risk to other people.

“And I think that the government should take responsibility for conveying accurate messages, not misleading, simplistic messages. And it’s a shame that it’s come to this that we have to vilify an individual in an attempt to essentially persuade the population to do what we want them to do without instead providing just accurate information and enabling them to make their own decisions.

“Governments have to introduce laws and mandates in times of public emergencies. But they still have an obligation to provide people with accurate information for why they’re doing it and what they’re doing.

“And I think his exclusion was on those grounds of public interest was absurd.”

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