So here we find ourselves, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. As of next Wednesday, Australia's international border – both in and out – will have been closed to all but a select group of rich people, sports and movie stars for 12 whole months.
That's 12 months of extraordinary restrictions on our lives, restrictions we wouldn't have even believed possible a year ago. Australians are still not allowed to leave the country without a good reason, determined by Border Force officials. Australian citizens abroad are still not allowed into their own country unless they make it under a very small daily passenger cap – essentially, those who can afford to fly business class are the only ones likely to make it in.
Twelve months of this, and how far have we come in the fight against COVID-19?
In some ways, a long way. Australia has flattened the curve, and then flattened it again. And again. We live relatively blessed lives here, free of harsh restrictions, without the day-to-day worry of contracting a very dangerous virus.
Debates here about the threat of COVID-19 are essentially theoretical – there's no genuine concern about getting sick. Pete Evans and his anti-science ilk can refuse to wear masks and say no to being vaccinated all they like, because they don't actually have anything to worry about right now.
In another sense, however, Australia has gone nowhere. After a year, our international border is still closed. We're an isolated island nation, shut off from the outside world, riding out the storm on our own.
For the most part, people seem pretty happy with that.
Australians, as far as I can tell, generally fall into two camps. There are plenty – the majority, it seems – who are happy to put their overseas holidays on hold and enjoy the luxury of isolation for as long as necessary. Keep those borders closed. Keep the virus out.
Then there's the other camp, those who chafe at this extraordinary restriction on their sense of freedom, those who are desperate to either leave Australia or have someone come in, those who have family and other loved ones overseas, many of whom can't make it into Australia right now for various reasons.
The former group are happy; the latter furious. And a recent government announcement has confirmed that it will be at least June before anything changes in regard to our international border. If we're being realistic, it will probably be longer than that.
It's still strange to me that there aren't more people demanding their right to leave the country right now, or their fellow citizens' rights to return. But fear does strange things to you. It seems COVID-19 trumps all else, and that any sense of nuance has been smashed to bits with the "well, do you want to be like the USA" sledgehammer.
So the question is, what will it take for the majority of Australians to want out? What is required for those happy to put their overseas travel on hold right now to demand the right to leave, to say enough is enough, that we've reached a tipping point and it's time to open?
Much like domestic travel, vaccines are key. Australians aren't going to be comfortable opening to the outside world – we're scared enough of people from other states at this point, let alone those from other countries – until everyone here who needs and wants to be vaccinated has been.
In that respect, June seems a fanciful notion for open borders. Australia's vaccination program isn't due to wrap up until October, and I can't see a relaxing of the rules until that has been completed. That's why the federal government is bulking up its Howard Springs quarantine facility: because the requirement to quarantine isn't going away any time soon.
So, we need the "jabs". But we also need other countries to be vaccinated. There's always talk of bubbles around here, particularly with the likes of Pacific island nations that rely on tourism from Australia to survive, but until the residents of those countries are vaccinated against COVID-19, there's no way Australian citizens – who could still be carrying the virus, despite having received a vaccine – will be allowed in. And vice versa.
There are no bubbles with unvaccinated countries coming to save our wandering souls. Again, most people seem comfortable with that.
To demand their release, Australians will require a monumental shift in the way we think about COVID-19, and the chances of people becoming infected with it. As I flagged a few weeks ago, for travel within Australia to return to normal, at some point we will have to become comfortable with some people getting sick from COVID-19, and the same applies to our desire to open international borders.
Vaccines won't prevent everyone from getting sick, but they will drastically lower the severity of the symptoms. That's great news, but we're unlikely to be happy about open international borders until we accept that COVID-19 will spread here once they do.
The final necessity for angsty locals is that we're going to need to look at the rest of the world and see that it's returning to normal. And at some point, it will. At some point Europe and the USA, in particular, will get on top of their COVID-19 outbreaks and life will begin to return to something approaching normality. Probably later this year.
There's a good chance, for example, that many Europeans and Americans will be able to go on summer holidays this year. We'll begin to see our northern hemisphere friends travelling as they once did, maybe by July or August. Surely, by that point, Australians are going to get itchy feet, wanting to rejoin the world and feel part of that global community again.
Qantas announced recently that it plans to restart its international network at the end of October, which seems a reasonable bet. By then, most Australians should be vaccinated, certainly enough to reach herd immunity. At the same time, plenty of our favourite destinations should be returning to something approaching normality, and we'll all be sitting around here in Australia watching friends overseas posting photos of their family reunions and their holidaying fun.
That, surely, will be the tipping point. That will change people's minds. We'll break free of these shackles through sheer FOMO alone.
What do you think it will take for Australians to demand to be allowed to leave the country? When do you think it will happen? Are you desperate to leave? Or happy to stay for the time being?