Australia has some of the harshest border restrictions on the planet: stringent arrival caps, two-week hotel quarantine and prevention of citizens leaving the country without special exemptions.
These restrictions have kept Australians safe. But they have also left tens of thousands stranded overseas, separated loved ones, and destroyed the international tourism sector. We have lost a basic right of citizenship, to come and go from our country at will.
Border restrictions were to be temporary. But almost a year into this pandemic, and even with a vaccine on the way, there is no end date. Now the World Health Organisation has declared that even after vaccinations have begun, it will be necessary to keep quarantining travellers because of the continued risk of spread.
“We need to assume that people who have been vaccinated also need to take the same precautions till there’s a certain level of herd immunity,” WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan told Nine Media.
The vaccines are nothing short of scientific miracles. All three major clinical trials, from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca, have shown jabs to be safe and up to 95 per cent effective. None of the tens of thousands of people who have received one died from the virus or suffered serious side effects.
But the vaccines are not perfect.
Some people will still get COVID-19 even after having the jab. In almost all cases, immunised individuals will experience mild symptoms, or none at all.
In other words, the vaccine will turn COVID-19 from a deadly disease into little worse than the common cold or mild flu.
But here is Australia’s dilemma.
Even if the vast majority of Australians are vaccinated, it would still be possible for COVID to get in from a foreign traveller, and spread quickly among vaccinated individuals who show little to no symptoms. It could then reach some people who have not received the vaccine, or whose immune response to the vaccine was weak, and then cause harm.
Most Australians have a low tolerance for COVID risk. The lack of substantial outbreak and the harsh measures to restrict the spread have stimulated fear.
Therefore, the natural response of politicians, even after much of the population is vaccinated, could be to keep borders shut for years in the hope of global elimination. They will be tempted to instigate harsh lockdowns to prevent the spread again and again.
This would be wrong. Australia would become a hermit country, all the poorer and locked off from the rest of the world for years.
It would mean the end of our basic freedom of movement, the intrepid Aussie traveler, and the international tourism sector.
Meanwhile, Australians would continue to face the constant risk of draconian state action locking us into our homes. Australia’s suppression strategy – which has become a de facto elimination strategy – does not blend well with the global situation.
COVID-19 is now expected by top scientists to become endemic, circulating through populations at a low level, particularly during winter Even with a vaccine. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to entirely eliminate the virus now it has spread across the planet.
Australia’s strategy and mindset need to change. After vaccinations, COVID-19 will be similar to a cold or flu, we should start treating it like the cold or flu.
We must learn to live with COVID once it is non-threatening.
After the most vulnerable, about 40 per cent of the population, is vaccinated, the chance of the disease causing death will decline by 99 per cent.
At this point, border restrictions can be lifted and life can return fully to normal. The daily counts, press conferences and restrictions must end. We must return to normal – not a “new normal.”
The end of this nightmare is on the horizon. We should approach it with excitement, not with fear.