Novak Djokovic discussed his stance on Covid vaccines in an interview with BBC’s Amol Rajan.
Prof Jonathan Ives, Professor of Empirical Bioethics, University of Bristol, said:
“Djokovic’s announcement today that he is prepared to miss out on title opportunities rather than have the Coivid-19 vaccine represents a move towards reasonableness, where he is accepting his decision will have personal consequences and he is prepared to accept those consequences. This is far cry from, and significant improvement on, his apparent call for exceptionalism earlier in the year.
“I personally find very little ground, ethically, to object to a person making a decision about their own body, and accepting the consequences following from that decision. He is not arguing against vaccines or encouraging others to not take it; he is explaining a personal decision that he has made. Djokovic is entitled to bodily autonomy, just like anyone else, and when faced with a choice between taking the vaccine or not playing tennis, he is choosing not to play tennis. Good on him for accepting that the rules apply to everyone.
“There will be concerns about a very famous and influential person appearing to be aligning themselves with an anti-vaccination position, and regardless of his claims to not be anti-vax it will certainly be perceived that way. This raises the important question of whether he has an obligation to be a positive public health role model, and whether he is doing wrong by vocally and publicly not conforming to the behaviour favoured by the majority of society.
“Whilst I disagree entirely with his position on the Covid-19 vaccination, I do not think he has an obligation to model ‘good’ vaccine behaviour. It would be different if he were a public health expert who was encouraging the public to be vaccinated whilst hypocritically refusing vaccination themselves. He is in the public eye for being good at tennis, and not because he has scientific or public health expertise or makes good decision off of the tennis court. We would all do well to remember that, and ask ourselves why we are giving him such a platform anyway. If anyone is genuinely swayed by his personal decision, this is more a damning indictment of a celebrity culture that encourages people to take vaccine advice from sportspersons, and an equally sad sign of our failure to build a public health and public science infrastructure that is trusted more than a tennis player. Ultimately, if a tennis player ends up being more influential with regard to vaccine uptake than any government, the government needs to take a long hard look at themselves and ask why they are so lacking in credibility.
“The ethically correct response to Djokovic’s comments today is not to cancel him or to try to force him to take the vaccine. It is to challenge his views, and advocate for safe and effective vaccines more strongly. We should respond by taking the necessary steps to build trust in the authorities advocating for the vaccine, and explain loudly and clearly why he is wrong, and why the public should not consider a tennis player, or any other celebrity, as an authority on, or a role model for, vaccine decisions.”
Dr Peter English, Retired Consultant in Communicable Disease Control, Former Editor of Vaccines in Practice, past Chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said:
“I heard an extended part of the interview this morning on the Today Programme.
“Part of his claim was that he honestly and anonymously submitted information proving recent infection, and this entitled him, under Australia’s rules, to enter the country and compete. I am in no position to comment on this.
“I rather agree with Djokovic that people should be entitled to refuse the vaccine, as long as they are prepared to accept the consequences – which, in his case, meant being banned from the Australian Open, and may mean that he will be banned from other such events. Of course, I would much prefer him, as a role model, to model sensible, caring-for-others behaviours, which include getting vaccinated against Covid-19 to reduce the chances that you will be ill and use scarce healthcare resources, or transmit the infection to others.
“He claims, however, not to be “antivaccine”, and to have “an open mind” about vaccines. I find this hard to believe. The evidence is overwhelming, that the vaccine is extremely safe, and much safer than infection or re-infection; and exposure to infection and reinfection are inevitable, so it is a highly irrational choice, not compatible with “having an open mind”, and strongly indicative of being anti-vaccine.”
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