When the world's number one tennis player Novak Djokovic found himself locked in a Melbourne hotel because he'd entered Australia without being vaccinated, he sent out an urgent request for gluten-free food.
The 34-year-old Serbian — currently at the centre of a furious dispute over his right to stay for the Australian Open — is allergic to wheat. How does he know? Step forward Dr Igor Cetojevic, a celebrity practitioner of alternative medicine who teaches that molecules of water react to emotions and that 'subtle toxins' seep out of mobile phones.
In 2011 Djokovic consulted Cetojevic, who connected his wrists and forehead to 'a biofeedback device' designed to measure stress, environmental toxins, brainwaves and food allergies. This curious device indicated that Djokovic was allergic to gluten. Cetojevic also made him hold a slice of bread against his stomach with one hand and raise the other in the air. The raised arm 'felt weak'.
So Djokovic went gluten-free and started practising health rituals prescribed by the Serbian guru. He rhapsodised about the mystic energies given off by 'Bosnian pyramids' near Sarajevo. His wife Jelena used Instagram to share a conspiracy theory that 5G mobile technology caused Covid-19.
It's not surprising, therefore, that Novak Djokovic is 'personally opposed to vaccination', as he announced in a Facebook discussion at the beginning of the pandemic. Although neither he nor his wife has endorsed the 5G theory, it's popular in anti-vax circles. There's also a fascinating overlap between distrust of vaccines and real or imaginary gluten allergies.
In 2017, three years before coronavirus, Columbia University researchers found that a majority of respondents with diagnosed coeliac disease or self-identified 'gluten sensitivity' believed or suspected that vaccines contained gluten. They don't. Significantly, it was the undiagnosed 'gluten-sensitive' folk who were most hostile to vaccines: nearly a third had already refused flu jabs.
It would be interesting to know how Serbians would have responded to the survey. Although a gluten allergy isn't the must-have health accessory in Belgrade that it is in Los Angeles, Serbia is the Wild West of what I call 'counterknowledge' — scientific, historical and political fantasies masquerading as academic research.
One of its most prominent new universities, which calls itself Megatrend, is notorious for handing out what one might politely call lightly supervised doctorates to politicians and other figures. In the mid-2000s Megatrend University employed as 'professors of cosmology' Grichka and Igor Bogdanoff, French identical twins and television personalities who were both accused of plagiarism.
The Bogdanoffs — who sported what the New York Times described as 'comically repulsive' facelifts — refused to be vaccinated against Covid. Grichka died of it on 28 December, Igor on 3 January. Megatrend's website makes no mention of their passing, or even of their existence — but the first photograph on its alumni page is of Novak Djokovic, who it claims studied business there in 2011. If so, he's not keen to acknowledge it.
You can't blame Megatrend for wanting to be associated with the winner of 20 Grand Slam men's singles titles. Djokovic is more than a celebrity in Serbia: he's a folk hero. When he was locked up, crowds screamed themselves hoarse and Serbian Orthodox priests all but rent their garments.
In Australia, by contrast, people want to know why the guy was allowed to enter the country in the first place. Apparently Djokovic thought he'd be given a 'medical exemption' by tennis authorities on the grounds that he'd already had Covid.
In fact, he first tested positive in the summer of 2020, during the Adria tennis tour he organised in Serbia at which social distancing was non-existent. Moreover, the Adria tour actually spread Covid — probably among the crowds and certainly among the players who had to pull out of the tournament because they'd been infected during their late-night partying. And this is in a country in which more than half the population was unvaccinated. Of course there are many reasons for Serbia's position near the bottom of the European league table, but you have to wonder whether the demigod Djokovic's well-known 'personal opposition' to vaccines was one of them.
Then, yesterday, we learned that Djokovic also tested positive for Covid in Serbia on 16 December and that this was the basis for his request for a medical exemption. It's true that this infection might give him recently acquired immunity to the virus. But it raises another question. If Djokovic tested positive on 16 December, what on earth was he doing presenting awards to young players the very next day?
On Monday, Djokovic thought he'd won his battle to play in the Open after a court decided that immigration authorities screwed up the cancellation of his visa. But every day brings fresh revelations, and that decision could be reversed if Australian border officials decide that his travel entry form included a false declaration. Whatever happens, Djokovic must know that even a historic victory on the tennis court — he'd become the first ever player to win 21 Grand Slams — won't make him popular in Australia. As Terry Barnes of The Spectator Australia wrote last week, Djokovic's 'tin-eared, almost messianic' attitude towards his Covid status 'was essentially a giant two fingers to the entire Australian population' – many of whom feel they've been living in a police state during the pandemic.
And that's putting it mildly. On Tuesday, off-air footage was leaked of Rebecca Maddern, a presenter on Melbourne's 7News channel, calling the player a 'lying, sneaky arsehole'. That's a widely held view, shall we say.
Djokovic has revealed the mixture of arrogance and gullibility that characterises so many anti-vaxxers. He's 'personally opposed' to medical treatment that demonstrably slows the spread of a horrible virus; at the same time he and his wife root around in the detritus of 'alternative' therapies and conspiracy theories, their eyes lighting up as they stumble across magical pyramids, empathetic water molecules and diabolical mobile phones. And they're not even among extremists. Elsewhere in the anti-vax underground, weirdos identified in the media as 'far-left' and 'far-right' plunder each other's genocidal fantasies with such enthusiasm that the notion of a political spectrum collapses.
It's showing signs of strain in the centre ground too, but that's encouraging. Australia, like Britain, is polarised by culture wars that started in America. In both countries, Covid has forced a right-of-centre government to support the civic authoritarianism of the progressive left. If anything, Australian conservatives have genuflected faster and deeper; hence the aura of a police state.
But the debates, however nasty, have been about how best to interpret and make use of peer-reviewed research. They haven't been about how vaccines surreptitiously tinker with DNA to turn people into zombies. I'm sure Novak Djokovic doesn't believe that, either, but some of his supporters do. The spotlight thrown on his own only marginally less crazy ideas has reminded the western public that the sleep of reason brings forth monsters. And so we've been rewarded with a long-overdue spectacle: left and right looking up from their squabbles to complain about the stench of anti-vaxxer bullshit.