Over the past 10 days or so, I’ve had an old adage repeating itself in my head: ‘In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ In other words, it’s all relative.
The past 10 days have been characterised by the saga of whether Novak Djokovic will be let into Australia, whether he’ll be allowed to stay in Australia, and whether he’ll be allowed to play the Australian Open – and, as I write this, the matter is still in flux. As the author of the only full-length biography of Djokovic, I’ve been in demand to give interviews to radio and TV stations around the world.
Fortunately, many of them just want to know what kind of man he is, what has shaped him, and what lies behind his resolute refusal to take a Covid-19 vaccine. But inevitably, some ask whether I think it’s right for him to be practising a policy that seems to so many people like ‘one rule for him, another for the rest’.
Having been exposed to a number of mediators in my life (notably my mother, who often brought the language of mediation to the family dinner table), it has been drummed into me that you don’t solve a problem without being able to see the perspective of both sides – or all sides if there are more than two. It’s common for a mediator to listen to the versions of both parties in a dispute and wonder whether they’re talking about the same situation, such is people’s ability to see the same events through totally different eyes.
The situation regarding Covid vaccines has an additional complexity. On most issues there is a spectrum of public opinion with views divided roughly evenly – for example, in politics the spectrum is generally seen as left/right, with large numbers clustered in the centre ground. But on the Covid vaccines, if the spectrum is from anti-vax to pro-vax, the vast majority are clustered around the pro-vax end, whether that’s through conviction or because governments have promised vaccination as the route back to ‘normality’.
As a journalist with no medical or scientific training, I have tried to be open-minded and middle-of-the-road about Covid. I’m not intrinsically pro or anti most things – I just ask pertinent questions, and when I don’t get satisfactory answers, my journalistic nose starts sniffing. I follow the mainstream media, and I seek out alternative points of view as I’ve learned not to trust what governments say, and to be suspicious when the political left and right agree on something – the agreement may be uncontroversial, but it may also hide a truth that vested interests don’t want to come out.
Yet I’ve been reluctant to write about Covid, simply because the theory of relativity makes the open-minded, middle-of-the-road approach seem extreme when the majority of people are at one end of the spectrum. I have learned from casual conversations that simply asking questions and expressing doubts over some of the assurances we are given over Covid vaccines puts me, in others’ eyes, firmly in the anti-vax camp.
I don’t consider myself anti-vax, unless the definition of ‘anti-vax’ includes an opposition to vaccine mandates (which one American dictionary says it does). I recognise the role played by vaccination in ridding the world of smallpox, polio and other diseases, and as a child I had various jabs. But I’m still not convinced about mandates for the Covid vaccines, not because I believe some madcap theory about a cabal taking over the world, but because you don’t have to be a medic to have logical concerns.
A pharmacist once explained to me that one has to be incredibly careful with vaccination, because it’s one of the few branches of medicine where you put drugs into healthy bodies. Most medication is put into sick bodies to make them healthy, whereas it’s the reverse with vaccination, so if you get it wrong the scope for making lots of healthy people sick is immense. That’s why vaccines often need up to 10 years to get approved, as it takes years to amass the necessary long-term safety data.
There simply hasn’t been enough time to amass long-term safety data on Covid vaccines, because we only learned of the Sars-Cov2 virus two years ago and we’ve only had the vaccines for just over a year. Some technology in the vaccines was developed before the current pandemic; as much testing was done on the vaccines as possible; and one hopes there won’t be any long-term problems. However, there are one or two reports from eminent medics suggesting there might be (reports I don’t judge because I lack the medical knowledge to do so). All we can safely say is it’s too early to know for sure. But that very uncertainty is enough for me to conclude that no-one should be forced to take a Covid vaccine if they don’t want to, as long as they carry the risk for any consequences themselves and don’t endanger others.
So back to Djokovic, and the two sides of the latest saga.
To the people of Melbourne, Djokovic seems arrogant and anti-social. They have suffered 262 days of lockdown since the pandemic began, and a few months ago were promised by their state government that the way out of perpetual restrictions was for everyone to get vaccinated. So when an unvaccinated multi-millionaire sports star waltzes in to play their local tournament for his place in history, the anger is understandable, and it’s exacerbated by his questionable behaviour after testing positive and an error on his travel declaration.
To Djokovic, his whole career rests on his body being in optimum shape. In his childhood and early professional career he battled a succession of allergies and intolerances, which has made him very sensitive to what he puts into his body. He also believes in the body’s natural ability to heal itself, and his instinctive presumption is for nature’s methods over allopathic/chemical medicine. Against that background – and having had Covid – he see it as consistent to decline a Covid vaccine. And in the absence of evidence suggesting he is a threat to the health and safety of others, it’s logical that he argues he should be allowed to ply his trade without being forced to take a drug that still lacks the long-term safety data.
I do not judge the merits of each side. I merely present them in this format to highlight that, unless both sides see the problem from the perspective of the other, there will be no solution (regardless what judges or ministers say), only a ramping up of righteous indignation. After many of the recent interviews I’ve done about Djokovic, I’ve had friends contacting me saying versions of: I now at least understand where he’s coming from, before I thought he was just weird.
And that is really a paradigm for our internet age, where social media creates echo chambers and people never really engage with the views of others. I myself am in Melbourne for the Australian Open, and not on a medical exemption, so I have made the decision most Melburnians want Djokovic to have made. But I understand where he is coming from, and at the very least, both Melburnians and Djokovic need to really appreciate how the other side sees this issue.