In an exclusive interview for the BBC, tennis superstar Novak Djokovic offered the following justification for his refusal to vaccinate himself against COVID-19.
“Me, as an elite professional athlete, I have always carefully reviewed, assessed everything that comes in from the supplements, food, the water that I drink, or sports drinks – anything really that comes into my body as fuel. Based on all the informations [sic] that I got, I decided not to take the vaccinehttps://www.bbc.com/news/world-60354068
The justification can be read in one of two ways, one of which has some merit, the other of which has, well, none:
(1) Djokovic refuses the vaccine because, being an elite athlete, the potential for it to undermine his ability to perform at the absolute highest level tips the scales against vaccination.
(2) Djokovic refuses the vaccine because he thinks, on balance, the potential drawbacks (to him) outweigh the benefits, independently of the fact that he is an elite athlete.
I have some sympathy with justification (1), even if I think it doesn’t ultimately pan out. The idea that someone in Djokovic’s extremely unusual position might deem the risk that a COVID-19 vaccine poses to his elite performance too high, strikes me as not totally barmy. Ultimately, I don’t think it holds water, because Djokovic would have to believe that the jab poses more of a potential threat to his ability to compete at this insanely high level than natural COVID-19 infections (of which he has had two). And there is just no evidence to support that claim and plenty of evidence to undermine it. But the justification enjoys, at least, the following broadly described merit: Djokovic is carving an exception out for himself because he is, undeniably, in a wholly exceptional position (few people in history have competed at his level in any sport, let alone tennis).
However, shortly afterwards, the interviewer Amol Rajan presses Djokovic: is he prepared to not get vaccinated even if this means missing the major tournaments and forgoing the chance to be the greatest tennis player in history? Djokovic answers ‘yes’, continuing:
Because the principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else. I’m trying to be in tune with my body as much as I possibly can.
What this reveals is that justification (1) cannot be the one Djokovic intended. Or rather, even if he did intend it, it is no longer available to him. Because if justification (1) were Djokovic’s justification, it follows that he ought to care about missing the major tournaments. After all, if I want to carve out an exception for myself because I’m worried about my ability to compete at the highest level, then I can’t also express a willingness to forego competing at the highest level. At least practically, the two claims are inconsistent.
What this shows is that justification (2) is Djokovic’s real justification. And if that’s the case, then Djokovic appears to be in the same boat as just about any other COVID-19-vaccine skeptic. He is committed to the falsehood that receiving one of the standard, approved COVID-19 vaccines poses a greater risk to his general well-being than refusing it.