When Australia's international borders - with the exception of Western Australia - reopen on February 21, it will be almost 23 months to the day since the federal government took the courageous decision to pull down the shutters on foreign visitors.
That, along with the earlier closure of our borders to visitors from China, Iran, Italy and South Korea, was criticised by the World Health Organisation as pre-emptive, unnecessary and likely to be ineffective.
The WHO could not have been more wrong. COVID-19, which had first been detected in Wuhan in December 2019, had already crossed international borders all around the world. Countries which did not close their borders to China imported thousands of cases. Hospital systems in many countries, including Italy, were already being overwhelmed.
The detection of the first Australian case just before Australia Day in 2020 rang alarm bells. Travel from China was suspended on February 1. This, and the later decision to close the border to all non-citizens and non-residents from February 20, meant the nation was able to avoid the early explosion of cases experienced in America, Europe and across most of Asia.
This made it possible for the initial six-week national lockdown in March and April to bring case numbers, which had been rising exponentially, under control.
The border closure, while catastrophic for the tourism and travel industries, altered the disease's Australian trajectory and saved tens of thousands of lives. That said, nobody expected the borders to stay closed for so long.
The pain and hardship borne by many Australians who found themselves trapped overseas as airline after airline cancelled flights Down Under is incalculable.
Many individuals, including those working for airlines, travel agents and in tourism, accommodation and hospitality, paid a high price for decisions made in the name of collective security.
Today, with Australia on the cusp of opening up again for tourism, the situation is very different to what it was 23 months ago. It makes little sense to keep the borders closed in order to stop COVID from entering the country given that in recent months more than 1 million Australians have been infected with the Omicron variant. Also, the fact more than 90 per cent of the population has been double-vaccinated means hospitalisation and mortality rates have been much lower than during the first and second waves.
Australians' willingness to embrace vaccination has made it possible for the country to begin to treat the virus as just one more infectious disease which can be contained by immunisation, sensible public health measures and attention to personal hygiene.
While the last few months have been hard - and much more should have been done to prepare the aged care sector, which is now relying on the ADF to keep its doors open - the border reopening offers hope that 2022 will be very different to 2020 and 2021. Lockdowns and interstate border closures (with the exception of Western Australia) should be a thing of the past.
This is great news for all Australians who have, for the most part, endured the restrictions on movement and other personal liberties in a stoic demonstration of national cohesion everyone can be proud of. It is even better news for the almost 1 million Australians employed in the tourism industry pre-COVID.
While it will take some time for traveller numbers to return to the 8 million-plus of 2018-19, the border reopening will provide a much-needed influx of foreign revenue at a crucial time in our post-Omicron economic recovery.
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