New Zealanders struggle to return home amid the country’s controversial isolation requirements
Bobbi McEwan has not returned to New Zealand for about three years.
The Whistler resident, from Cambridge on the North Island, was just over halfway through her two-year working holiday visa when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, closing borders. In New Zealand, borders were closed in March 2020 to everyone except citizens and residents.
“I was like, ‘Well, am I going home, am I living with my parents? Should I try to find a job? McEwan called back. “Do I have to start all over again while this pandemic is going on, and do I have to go through all these confinements, or do I live in Canada where I already have a roof over my head, I already have a job that earns me something, and I already have a foundation and a support network? »
Convinced that the emergency measures would be over when her visa expired, McEwan decided to hold on. But as the remaining days on his visa elapsed, his home country’s borders remained sealed, with strict entry limits and quarantine requirements essentially stranding many New Zealanders abroad without a visa. valid.
“I didn’t have a plan in place,” McEwan said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get another visa, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go home.”
Luckily, she found a new employer in Whistler who agreed to hire her through a Labor Market Impact Assessment, which allowed McEwan to apply for a work permit.
“I’m very, very grateful,” she said. “There were a few months there where I couldn’t work, but I’m just happy to have a place to live, a job and a roof over my head.”
That doesn’t mean the past two years in Whistler, with little or no opportunity to return home to see family, have been easy.
New Zealand has implemented some of the toughest measures in the world as part of its effort to eradicate the virus, banning most foreigners from entering the country and subjecting returning Kiwis to a managed program of Isolation and Quarantine (or MIQ, as it is better known), first implemented in April 2020.
The acronym has become associated with heartache for many people living abroad.
The MIQ program requires anyone entering the country to self-isolate in a government-run isolation hotel. In October 2020, it moved to an assignment system, where travelers had to have a “good MIQ” – or quarantined hotel reservation – before boarding a plane. With only so many spaces available, hopeful travelers should first update the government’s MIQ website daily until a small number of available rooms appear.
After a Delta outbreak in August 2021, some cases in the country also had to complete their period of isolation at an MIQ facility. With even more places available, the government adopted a lottery approach to the MIQ reservation system in response to increased demand. The government provides an hour for a “hall release” covering a set period of dates, with the “virtual hall” opening an hour before. Interested people log into a waiting room and watch the countdown before being automatically sorted into an online queue.
“If there are 2,000 rooms and you’re in the first 2,000 people, you’ve got about a room, but you just have to sit down and wait for your number to go down to one” before you can book, explained the New Zealander. Hayley Clark. “So if you’re 2,000th in line, you’ll probably get a room, but you might not get the room on the date you need…Generally there would be around 2,000 or 3,000 rooms and about 30,000 people trying these lotteries.
Clark, a former Whistlerite who called the resort home for four years before moving to Montreal just before the pandemic hit, was one of the lucky few who managed to secure a spot in the lottery in early 2021 – on his seventh try. While Clark said she supported the MIQ program in theory, she criticized its execution, calling her experience with the lottery a “nightmare” that amounted to “absolute torture”.
“I did not make less than 10,000th [in line] until I finally get my place,” she said on a Zoom call from Christchurch, where she had just completed her last day of quarantine and plans to stay for a few months. Clark was eager to get home not just to serve as bridesmaid at her best friend’s upcoming wedding, but to see two family members who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses about a year ago.
With each unsuccessful lottery attempt, “it became more and more stressful,” she said. “It was really difficult and really difficult to sit there and watch and say ‘OK, I’m not going home because of this lottery.’ It’s been dubbed the lottery of human misery, and that’s pretty accurate.
“The mental strain of having absolutely no control over it, I think, is underestimated.”
Another prohibitive factor is the cost of the MIQ: Kiwis planning to stay in New Zealand for less than six months are required to cover the minimum bill of $1,610 for a 10-day stay.
Emergency exemptions to the lottery system and managed isolation also exist, but as Clark explained, the bar for these circumstances is exceptionally high.
“I feel like I was lucky”
To be back in New Zealand “is surreal”, said Clark. “It’s so strange. I’m very happy to be home, but I feel like I was lucky.
Border restrictions have meant daily life has been largely normal for most Kiwis since the middle of 2020, but have caused major distress for New Zealanders looking to return home. An advocacy group called Grounded Kiwis filed for judicial review in the country’s High Court in October 2021, alleging that the MIQ system breaches New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act. This case will be heard in Wellington on February 14.
But last Thursday, Kiwis abroad found some hope. On February 3, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a five-stage border reopening plan that will soon allow vaccinated New Zealanders and eligible travelers to self-isolate and test themselves upon arrival, rather than entering the MIQ. This option should be available to New Zealanders in Australia on February 27 and open to Kiwis everywhere else in the world by March 13. If all goes as planned, all vaccinated travelers will be able to enter New Zealand in October. .
“It’s easy to hear the word MIQ and immediately associate it with heartbreak. There’s no doubt that for New Zealand this has been one of the most difficult parts of the pandemic. But part of the reason it’s one of the hardest things we’ve seen is because large-scale loss of life isn’t,” Ardern said during last week’s announcement. “The anguish of the MIQ has been real and heartbreaking, but the choice to use it has undeniably saved lives.”
She added: “MIQ meant everyone couldn’t go home when they wanted, but it also meant COVID couldn’t come in when they wanted either.”
New Zealand previously announced in November that MIQ restrictions would be relaxed in early 2022, but those plans were put on hold in December due to the ramp-up of the Omicron variant.
Jenny McAlpine, a New Zealander who has lived in the British Columbia interior for just over two decades, called Ardern’s announcement “good news”.
Following the government’s announcement in November that MIQ requirements for New Zealand passport holders would end in February, McAlpine immediately booked a ticket. “I was so excited,” she said, until the Dec. 20 announcement “shattered” her. “I had about a week with a ticket in hand, making plans with my family – I had a self-isolation plan with my sister at her house, and I’m triple vaxxed, and they gave it to me. taken,” she mentioned. “I bawled my eyes out for, like, two days.”
McAlpine says Kiwis abroad want to protect their fellow citizens and are not looking for a “free-for-all” reopening of borders, but reasonable health measures now that the virus is spreading within New Zealand communities. “Now that it’s there, there are thousands and thousands of people who are trusted to self-isolate at home, just like we do here in British Columbia,” she said. declared.
“I am happy that the only country in the world that prohibits its citizens from coming and going freely is finally waking up,” she added in a follow-up email. “I just hope and pray that the New Zealand government doesn’t move the goal posts again.”
McEwan, a resident of Whistler, shares McAlpine’s skepticism and remains cautiously optimistic about the prospect of returning home for a visit later this calendar year. “I won’t believe it until I see it,” she said. “They will reassess everything. So I’m just like, cool, they announced [a shift to self-isolation]but will it keep getting pushed back?
Being away from home and unable to hop on a plane on a whim “isn’t a nice feeling,” McEwan said. Although she said she was lucky her family was doing well right now, there was a period earlier in the pandemic when her grandmother was sick and “all I wanted to do was was to get on a plane and go home and visit my family”.
She explained: “There are good days; there are bad days. There was kind of a moment where I was like, ‘I’m never going home.’
Knowing that severe border restrictions would continue until 2022, would McEwan have made the same decision to stay in Whistler rather than return home to New Zealand almost two years ago?
“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I think if I had known then what I know now, I probably would have gone home.”