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Australia is on the brink of an identity crisis as our highly vaccinated, low-COVID nation faces its most significant confrontation yet with SARS-CoV-2.

For the first time in almost two years we have swapped closed borders and double doughnuts for sell-out concerts and interstate and overseas flights. Yet with Omicron spreading, some say opening up feels like the coronavirus equivalent of a bungee jump, and this week we’re standing on the ledge.

Experts hope vaccination is the cord that will save us, but we are jumping into the unknown and the cognitive dissonance required to make the leap can be painful.

“Everything will be fine. Vaccination rates are high. We can’t stay locked down forever,” goes the measured wisdom.

But then: “OMG, look at the numbers!”

LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic
Many were alarmed when NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said one of those numbers out loud this week: the state’s residents, already veterans of a four-month lockdown, are now being prepped to accept 25,000 infections per day by January as the state opens up.

With COVID-zero now a quaint goal from the pandemic policy archive, and daily infections already breaking records, there’s widespread confusion about the strategy underpinning the decision to push forward with reducing restrictions.

Many Australians are left wondering not just what will happen next, but what have they spent 21 months fighting for?

‘If not now, when?’
For Deakin University’s chair of epidemiology, Professor Catherine Bennett, the wisdom of open borders has a straightforward answer: “If not now, when?” she says. “I think it’s important to come back to remembering why we kept the virus out and why we worked so hard to do that. And it was so we could get vaccinated.”

She adds that crossing most state borders includes “some degree of testing” – meaning infectious visitors are more likely to be picked up. And this is even more likely with an Omicron infection which develops so quickly it’s likely to be detectible after only a few days of incubation.

 

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A man in blue scrubs and a white face mask is holding the arm of a woman in preparation for a vaccine.
Keeping borders closed was designed to buy time for Australians to get vaccinated.(Shutterstock: Halfpoint)
Yet that doesn’t mean open borders are easy.

With Omicron infections growing across the country just as vaccination protection wanes for early adopters and a booster campaign ramps up, relaxing border rules and restrictions could scarcely come at a more difficult time, according to virologist Professor Ian Mackay from the University of Queensland.

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