Coronavirus measures stop legal return of thousands to New Zealand
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND » When Silvia Dancose’s daughter called in distress from Canada in August, Dancose flew over right away to comfort her. But now, after weeks of trying, she has no idea when she’ll be allowed to return home to New Zealand.
This week, Dancose found herself waiting in vain behind 17,000 others in an online queue. New Zealanders desperate to return to their home country are forced each week or so to enter a lottery for coveted beds in quarantine hotels.
As part of its effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, New Zealand requires all returning citizens and residents — whether vaccinated or not — to spend 14 days isolating in a hotel run by the military.
Because demand is far outstripping supply, New Zealanders are being locked out indefinitely, despite the right of return enshrined in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements and in international law.
The quarantine system remains in place despite New Zealand’s government acknowledging this week that it can no longer wipe out the virus. The tight border controls, along with strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing, ensured New Zealand eliminated each outbreak of the virus for the first 18 months of the pandemic.
For most of that time, people were able to live without any restrictions, going to work and filling sports stadiums. Only 28 people in the country with a population of 5 million have died from COVID-19.
But an outbreak of the more transmissible delta variant in August has proved impossible to extinguish, especially after spreading through marginalized groups, including homeless people and gang members.
Yet the strict border measures remain.
For many trying to come home, it has been particularly galling that sports stars, politicians and other selected high-flyers glide through the system with guaranteed spots upon their return.
A lawsuit to get home
For one New Zealander, it took filing a lawsuit before she could get home. Bergen Graham unexpectedly found out she was pregnant in March while living in El Salvador.
Doctors told Graham her pregnancy was considered high-risk because of her blood type. She filed six applications for an emergency spot in quarantine, but was denied each time.
As Graham and her husband tried to get back, they flew to Los Angeles, where they lined up alongside undocumented immigrants at community clinics to get medical care.
They worried they would get deported from the U.S. when their visa waiver entitlement expired, or that the delays would disqualify them from traveling home because the pregnancy would get too far advanced. They feared they would get stuck with a six-figure medical bill if they had the baby in the U.S.
“It was inhumane. Everyone’s situation changes, and everyone has the right to come home,” Graham said. “I felt like that right had been taken away. It was the weirdest feeling.”
A London-based group called Grounded Kiwis helped her file legal action in New Zealand asking for a judicial review of her case. Within 48 hours, the government made a U-turn and last month offered her an emergency spot in quarantine.
Graham, whose baby is due in mid-November, said she’s incredibly relieved to be back home in Auckland, but remains angry at what she endured.
One of the founders of Grounded Kiwis is Alexandra Birt, a 29-year-old New Zealand lawyer based in London, who became concerned that people’s rights were being breached.
Birt found time for research when she caught COVID-19 herself in July and took sick leave from work. She said New Zealand’s quarantine system is broken and needs to change.
Many New Zealanders stranded abroad have also become disheartened by the attitude of those back home, Birt said, some of whom seem to have little sympathy for their plight and are content for the borders to remain tightly sealed.
“People are feeling totally abandoned both by the government and the New Zealand public,” Birt said.
New Zealand’s government says the quarantine system will be vital in its virus response for the foreseeable future.