After a week of controversy surrounding Novak Djokovic’s right to stay in Australia and compete in the Australian Open, the tennis star has now had his visa revoked again. The Djokovic case has several legal and medical aspects to it, but it has also fast become a symbolic battle between those who support coronavirus vaccination and restrictions on travel, and those who oppose them.
The importance of his case needs to be understood in terms of its effect on public health and behaviour. Djokovic’s actions alone were always unlikely to have a significant impact on Australia’s Covid case rates. Furthermore, an athlete in his thirties (such as Djokovic) is, statistically speaking, unlikely to become seriously ill with the virus, and so is individually unlikely to strain Australia’s healthcare system.
But pandemics are about groups, not individuals – and it is the potential impact of this incident on group behaviour that really matters here.
The unvaccinated, high-profile Djokovic, who secured an Australian visa via a medical exemption, could easily have become a symbol of the Australian government’s leniency regarding its own restrictions. There is precedent for this in the “Cummings effect”: public faith in the UK government’s handling of the pandemic fell after the revelation that the No 10 senior adviser Dominic Cummings had travelled to Durham during lockdown. The decision by the Australian government to revoke Djokovic’s visa and potentially deport him – despite a court ruling earlier this week that he could stay and compete – was likely to have been prompted by a desire to avoid a similar “Djokovic effect”.
Australia has seen a huge increase in coronavirus cases during its Omicron wave, and Victoria, the state hosting the Australian Open, broke its record for Covid hospitalisations this week. A “Djokovic effect” would be disastrous, as it could push even those who would otherwise follow the rules towards non-compliance.
Throughout the pandemic, Australia has imposed some of the longest and harshest lockdown measures in the world. These measures greatly rely on evoking a sense of “prosociality” – the idea that our actions should benefit everyone, not just ourselves. But this social contract is sustained only through fairness. Unfairness, therefore, can make us want to punish others and rebel, even if this comes at a cost to ourselves. Fairness is crucial to pandemic compliance, and one would expect people to become non-compliant with existing restrictions, even when those restrictions would benefit themselves, if unfairness is perceived.
It is likely the Australian government has now revoked Djokovic’s visa because it realised that the compliant majority of Australians would view the court’s original decision as unfair. Djokovic has not helped himself by being photographed in public shortly after testing positive for Covid-19 and possibly making incorrect declarations on his visa application. From a behavioural perspective, this leads to a simple conclusion: people who play by the rules will stop if the rules are perceived to allow rule-breaking.
Equally, there is the non-compliant minority to consider. In refusing vaccines or ignoring lockdown rules, this group must overcome social norms and the fear of shame and being “othered” by the majority. Djokovic is one of the few high-profile individuals anywhere in the world who seems to be publicly supporting their beliefs. The decision earlier this week to allow him to stay in Australia could be perceived by those resistant to vaccines and restrictions as an implicit validation of their own views, as might any decision by the Australian government against taking further action.
Djokovic’s lawyers have recognised that this is all playing out in a wider context, and have argued that the authorities are reacting to the risk of sparking wider anti-vaccination sentiment, rather than taking the tennis player’s case on its own merits. The immigration minister meanwhile said in a statement that this latest decision was based on “health and good-order grounds”.
In revoking Djokovic’s visa, the Australian government is probably trying to prevent him from becoming an important, positive figurehead for those who oppose vaccination or travel restrictions. By taking such action, in front of what is now an international audience, Scott Morrison, the prime minister, is drawing a clear line in the sand and turning Djokovic’s initial exemption into a reaffirmation of Australia’s Covid measures.
Stuart Mills is a fellow in behavioural science at the London School of Economics