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Novak Djokovic coronavirus saga highlights vaccine hesitancy in his native Serbia

Supporters of Serbia's Novak Djokovic gather to protest in the capital, Belgrade, on Jan. 6. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

The legal fight in Australia this week over star tennis player Novak Djokovic’s coronavirus vaccination status has shed light on stubbornly high vaccine hesitancy rates in his native country of Serbia.

There, only about 45 percent of the population has been fully inoculated and just 25 percent have received a booster shot, despite an initially successful rollout and a surfeit of doses.

Djokovic has made several skeptical remarks about vaccines — and science in general — since the start of the pandemic but did not disclose his vaccination status. The 34-year-old, 20-time Grand Slam winner arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday after apparently being granted an exemption for the Australian Open’s vaccine mandate.

But border officials quickly detained him at the airport and revoked his visa, saying that he did not meet Australia’s strict pandemic entry requirements. He is being held at an immigrant detention center until a court hears his case on Monday.

At home in Serbia, supporters have rallied to Djokovic’s side, hailing him as a national hero and accusing Australia of holding him captive.

At the same time, new daily coronavirus cases are again on the rise after a devastating surge in infections from the delta variant across Serbia in the fall. This time, health experts say, the highly contagious omicron variant is to blame, with case numbers rising more than 152 percent over the past seven days, according to the World Health Organization.

Serbia, a nation of 7 million, has officially reported some 1.3 million total coronavirus cases and more than 12,800 deaths.

But the country’s vaccination campaign — once lauded as the fastest in Europe — has stalled. It has been undermined in part by the rampant spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation, as well as a historic distrust of government institutions and Western medicine in general.

“In the case of Serbia, there is a general distrust of the state and political parties and institutions,” Jasna Milosevic Djordjevic, a Belgrade-based social psychology professor, told Radio Free Europe in October.

According to Djordjevic’s research on anti-vaccine sentiment in Serbia, people’s distrust of political parties and the government also extended to the country’s public health system.

Long-standing corruption in academia and at hospitals helped foster skepticism. In October, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network reported that the number of certificates listing the coronavirus as the cause of death in 2020 was actually three times higher than the number officially reported to the public at the time.

“In Serbia, the government’s response has been erratic,” investigative health journalist, Hristio Boytchev, wrote in a British medical journal. “Authorities resorted to draconian measures at the start of the pandemic … Then, in May 2020, martial law and curfews were suddenly abandoned.”

The country’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, played all sides as the pandemic dragged on. He used coronavirus restrictions as a political tool and tinkered with the official death toll. He also relied on covid-skeptic advisers but secured a surplus of vaccines for use both at home and as part of his ambitions for vaccine diplomacy abroad.

In a statement following Djokovic’s detention, Vucic called his treatment in Australia “harassment.”

“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately,” the president said.

Read more:

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