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Australia feared letting Novak Djokovic stay would fuel antivaccine sentiment

Australia’s decision to cancel tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time was driven by fear that letting him stay could foster antivaccine sentiment. (AP)Premium
Australia’s decision to cancel tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time was driven by fear that letting him stay could foster antivaccine sentiment. (AP)
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  • ‘Djokovic’s presence in Australia may pose a health risk to the Australian community in that his presence in Australia may foster antivaccination sentiment,’ immigration chief said

Australia’s decision to cancel tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time was driven by fear that letting him stay could foster antivaccine sentiment during a surge in Covid-19 cases, court documents show.

Immigration minister Alex Hawke didn’t dispute Djokovic’s claim of a medical exemption from rules that travelers to Australia must be vaccinated against Covid-19, according to documents made public Saturday. Hawke, who canceled Djokovic’s visa on Friday, said allowing the player to stay could sway some Australians against getting vaccinated.

“Mr. Djokovic’s presence in Australia may pose a health risk to the Australian community in that his presence in Australia may foster antivaccination sentiment," Hawke said in a document detailing his decision.

Djokovic, who is unvaccinated and spoke out against mandates as recently as November, was a heavy favorite to win the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 17.

He arrived during Australia’s largest wave of Covid-19 infections since the start of the pandemic as the government sought to persuade as many eligible people as possible to get vaccinated. The Covid-19 wave has caused widespread disruption including hospital cancellations of non-urgent procedures and empty supermarket shelves due to labor shortages.

“His presence in Australia, given his well-known stance on vaccination, creates a risk of strengthening the antivaccination sentiment of a minority of the Australian community," Hawke said in the cancellation notice.

Many Australians, who have lived under some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions since the start of the pandemic, were angered by Djokovic’s attempt to get an exemption from vaccination rules. Others criticized his treatment as political point-scoring by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose ruling center-right government faces an election by May at the latest.

Djokovic was initially detained last week after immigration authorities decided his vaccine exemption wasn’t valid. On Monday, a court overturned the cancellation of his visa on technical grounds, freeing him to practice on the blue courts of Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, before Mr. Hawke exercised his power as immigration minister to re-cancel.

Djokovic’s lawyer Nick Wood argued in a late-night court hearing on Friday that Hawke’s reasoning was flawed because he hadn’t considered that Djokovic’s deportation could have an impact on antivaccine sentiment.

“That seems patently irrational," Wood said.

Lawyers for Djokovic and Hawke will file their final submissions to Australia’s Federal Court by Saturday evening. The court will hold a hearing at 9:30 a.m. local time Sunday, where a judge is scheduled to rule on Djokovic’s appeal against the visa cancellation.

Experts on immigration law have said Djokovic is unlikely to succeed unless the government makes a procedural error or the minister overreaches his power. A different court overturned the initial visa cancellation after immigration officials questioned Djokovic overnight for about eight hours but didn’t give him enough time to seek advice before they acted.

Hawke didn’t refute Djokovic’s contention that he posed a negligible health risk, documents showed. Djokovic has said his Covid-19 infection in December confers similar protection to a vaccine, the documents said.

Australia has one of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates in the world. Australia, where children aged 5 to 11 years old only began to receive their first shots Monday, has vaccinated roughly 79% of its population, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S., by comparison, has vaccinated 63%.

Djokovic is the top seed for the Australian Open, which he has won nine times. Another victory would take his tally of Grand Slam titles to 21, surpassing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the first time in his career.

He remains slated to face fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanović on Monday in the Australian Open’s opening round. If he withdraws, he will be replaced with a player who lost in the qualifying tournament.

Under Australia’s immigration laws, Djokovic might be barred from getting a visa to Australia for three years, except under certain circumstances.

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