Since the start of New Zealand's COVID lock down strategy there have been calls of distress from outside the country because of the Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) rules. In my opinion these have been largely misrepresented in the media with quotes and tone intimating that citizens overseas are whining rich people with other options.
I would like to correct that misrepresentation by explaining; my connection to the country, why I am overseas, why I didn’t return, why I think the current state of quarantine is in breach of the law and how a New Zealand citizen overseas thinks the quarantine rules should be structured.
If you think about it, there are about a million citizens overseas. It's actually a country of six million. That some of them need to come home in a time of crisis is completely normal. People need to remember that those people have the same right to be in New Zealand as the people already there and any erosion of that right is an erosion of everybody's rights.
I was born in Waitakere in the seventies and have spent nearly all my life, except for the past couple of years, in New Zealand. I have a father, brother, nephew, daughter and grandchildren in my immediate family with most of my wider and extended family being based in the greater Auckland, Coromandel and Northland.
Why I am overseas?
I decided to walk Te Araroa and fell in love. However, she lived in France so after much expensive and environmentally damaging back and forth I moved to France with a longer term view of us returning to New Zealand.
A few months after our sons birth we returned home for a cousins wedding. We left Paris on 19th February 2020 and flew via Doha, having cancelled our original flights through Guangzhou due to the Coronavirus outbreak. We returned from New Zealand to Paris on Wednesday, 11th March, as the Coronavirus was subsiding in Hubei Province. Then on the 17th of March France went into lock down. It was unexpected.
I don’t actually remember much of it. I don't know whether I picked up COVID in Doha on the return journey but I was sick and coughing so much I would vomit and then be unable to breathe. Around the same time our neighbour had been diagnosed with COVID 19. What I am trying to point out here is that there was no way I wanted to go near anyone, let alone fly home.
Additionally, the airlines shut down. I think people forget just how quickly it happened and how no-one knew how long it would last. Flights became sporadic, expensive and those with a transit point were risky because the transit point might not be open by the time your flight arrived. Even without that problem airlines didn’t know how many people would signup for a flight and would continue cancelling until they had a full flight.
We were OK. We had an apartment, work, each other and after a week I was well again. There were also restrictions. We couldn’t leave our immediate area and we could only leave the house for specified activities but we were the lucky ones. So many others aren’t.
Why I haven’t returned to NZ
It has now been over a year and a half since I was last home. I call my father, brother and daughter every couple of days. I’ve thought of trying to book a visit to see them but the chaos that has been the MIQ in New Zealand, the cost, the time limitations and the fact that other people need them more than us have all been factors in deciding against it.
And a visit would be just that. A visit. My plan is to return in the future and in the meantime the restrictions in France are easy to abide by. I’m vaccinated, I wear a mask in shops, show my vaccination pass when at a cafe and I wash my hands. It’s not that hard.
I would love to see my family. I haven’t seen them for almost two years now. It’s a long time for me and longer in the life of a grandchild or a brother. Almost all their lives for my son and granddaughter. The Internet is great but it isn’t the real thing. But, I understand the reasons and agree with them. To protect our country we must restrict visiting my family.
Then the rot sets in
In the beginning I was quietly proud. People would speak of COVID free New Zealand it as though it was some sort of dream and I would downplay it. I could see the lock down strategy was needed and that we would be behind the other bidders for the vaccines. Even though I consider MIQ (in its first state) to be a restriction of the Bill of Rights there is a reason. A really good reason.
I am not proud of the Governments progress though. The vaccine roll out should have begun a long time ago. There is no healthy way out of the situation without each person being given the chance to be vaccinated. Money spent on supporting business should have been spent on the vaccine and roll out. 30 times more money has been spent on supporting business than vaccinating people.
The Government have also been using MIQ spaces for sports teams and business. Rugby, netball, cricket, and Olympic teams have taken up hundreds of rooms. Overseas seasonal workers, international students and refugees. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – Accord Transformation Unit for some reason needs 60 rooms per month?
And that isn’t to say that I don’t have sympathy for these groups. If I was running it then refugees would definitely get in. But how are people going to the Doha Expo, or the 1685 sports people using rooms, more important than our Bill of Rights? There was a time when I was very young that New Zealand decided that sport was not more important than people. That playing rugby was not more important than values. Yet here we have the government saying that sport is more important than rights? It’s bizarre and disturbing, but what it really points out is that the current restrictions are not justified.
I believe you should be able to quarantine people if you do it fairly but fairly isn’t refusing entry on the grounds that you want people to watch rugby. To do so is a decision for political gain.
How is MIQ breaching the Bill of Rights
Freedom of movement
- Everyone lawfully in New Zealand has the right to freedom of movement and residence in New Zealand.
- Every New Zealand citizen has the right to enter New Zealand.
- Everyone has the right to leave New Zealand.
- No one who is not a New Zealand citizen and who is lawfully in New Zealand shall be required to leave New Zealand except under a decision taken on grounds prescribed by law.
These are some of our rights as a New Zealand citizen. They can be restrained by another section which states,
- Subject to section 4, the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
But what is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society? I think most people would agree that being placed in quarantine when entering the country and to having to have a space before entering the country is reasonable in the current situation. There is a pandemic after all.
I don’t think most people would agree that it is a reasonable limit for them to be excluded from entering the country because Sport NZ wants to play a game and I don’t think the judiciary would agree either.
It looks like the Government is in an extremely tricky position. They probably can’t win in court with the current MIQ booking system. It is likely for this reason that Bergen Graham, after having been denied an MIQ space six times under the emergency allocation request system, had her application granted within a day of filing a claim to the courts. The current system is not demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
What I would like to see from MIQ
What I would like to see is a fairer ranking of applications. For instance, a full time resident of another country would be ranked lower as would a person who left New Zealand for sport or business purposes. I should be easier for a person who's visa is to expire to get an MIQ space than me. People with an actual needs, trapped overseas, medical problems, children, refugees and so on should be ranked higher.
It is a bizarre situation where a person who has medical problems or has to care for children (or has been separated from their young children) has an equal chance of gaining a spot in MIQ as a person who voluntarily flies to Australia to see their family. It is even more bizarre that both those citizens have less chance of gaining a spot because of a foreign sports team.
The New Zealand Government can, and needs to, do so much better.
Other changes I would like to see
The vaccination program has to be given priority. Every person in the country needs to be given the option of taking the two vaccine shots. They don’t have to take them but they do need to be given the option and that option needs to be recorded so the government can direct resources if they are needed to cover that decision.
At the same time the health system needs a large scale injection of funding to deal with the cases when the country opens back up. Negative pressure rooms, oxygen capacity, personal protection equipment, staff and training.
Additional services should be placed near vulnerable communities whether because of age, location, ethnicity, vaccination status or mental health. On that point, there are many people who no longer have much human contact when the lock downs happen. Some people didn’t see another person for almost a month in the last Auckland lock down. That isn’t great. People need people.
Benefits for people trapped overseas need to be extended. There are people on the pension trapped overseas who face having their pensions cut because of the time spent out of the country. That’s stupid.
And finally, the country needs to open back up. We may be a series of islands but we are not separate from the world. The lock down is costing a lot of money and there are other problems that are not being dealt with while the Government deals with COVID. The housing crisis, pollution and climate change are a couple that come to mind. There will be others in the future and each time we borrow more money to deal with this crisis it limits our abilities to deal with the next.