For some seven years, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has been the No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player in the world. So why did Australian officials just kick him out of the country, where he was supposed to compete in the Australian Open?

It appears they did so because they thought it would look good to their COVID-weary constituents. And the courts let them get away with it.

If this sounds like the behavior of a Third World country, rather than a Western democracy, you’re not far off.

The term “Third World” originated during the Cold War to distinguish poor developing countries from the industrialized West, on the one hand, and the Soviet bloc and socialist camp on the other. The definition was largely socioeconomic. But there was more to it than development and poverty rates. Another important factor was the rule of law. In Third World countries, it was common for political leaders to ignore or bend the rules or make them up as they went. Socioeconomic conditions—wide-scale poverty—typically were a consequence of this.

Unfortunately, First World countries sometimes emulate the Third World. That’s what a group of top Australian bureaucrats did in Djokovic’s case: They expelled him from the country because he hadn’t received a COVID-19 vaccination.

To be clear, I’m not anti-vaccine. My family and I are fully vaccinated. While I recognize the available vaccines don’t provide immunity or prevent transmission, they offer significant protection against serious illness.

I’m also not a Djokovic fanatic. He arguably may be the greatest tennis player ever, but he has a disagreeable personality and doesn’t always conduct himself as one would expect from someone who is an icon to many young people.

The controversy surrounding Djokovic’s participation in the Australian Open is somewhat nuanced, but it essentially boils down to this: Aussie bureaucrats decided to ignore their own COVID rules—that is, the rule of law—though Djokovic was in full compliance.

We can guess why they did this: Elections are coming up in May, and millions of Aussies, frustrated by endless COVID-related restrictions, were furious that a famous tennis star could be exempted from the country’s vaccine mandate so he could participate in the tournament.

However, the COVID-19 rules, found on the Australian Government Department of Health website, stipulate that one of the few reasons for exempting someone from the vaccine mandate is if that person has been infected with the COVID virus in the past six months.

Two medical teams, one from the state of Victoria (which includes Melbourne, where the tournament is being held) and the other from the Department of Health, concluded that Djokovic was entitled to the exemption. They didn’t know his identity at the time because the review process was blind. When Tennis Australia informed Djokovic that he could enter the country to participate in the tournament, the federal government was aware that he qualified for the exemption.

What happened next is farcical. After Djokovic was on his way, federal officials signaled that he may not be allowed to enter after all.

What had happened? The answer is: a public outcry. Many Australians incorrectly believed that the Serbian player was being given special treatment, placed above the law. Rather than explain the truth and justify their actions, Australian officials decided to backtrack and reinterpret their rules.

On arrival, Djokovic was informed that his entry visa was being revoked. He was then sent to a hotel where undocumented immigrants are detained.

Then the government, aware of how ridiculously inconsistent it looked, made the situation even worse. Since Czech doubles star Renata Voracova also had been granted an exemption to enter the country, the government revoked her visa and expelled her from the country. “I felt a little bit like a criminal,” she told reporters . “I sent all the documents. They were approved.”

A judge had the courage to remember that the rule of law counts for something in Australia and released Djokovic. But the judge’s decision wasn’t the end of the story.

The immigration minister subsequently used his discretionary power to cancel Djokovic’s visa on health and “good order” grounds, apparently fearing that allowing him to remain in the country could stoke up anti-vaccine sentiment; a court upheld the decision.

Whatever one may think of the superstar’s position on the vaccine, the fact remains that Djokovic met the stated criterion for admission into the country. His expulsion smacks of Third World politics. No activist has done more to fuel anti-vaccine sentiment than the government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, COVID irony.