Virus measures prevent legal return of thousands to New Zealand

Silvia Dancose via AP

In this photo provided by Silvia Dancose from New Zealand, Dancose, right, takes a selfie with her daughter Sofia Gagnon shortly after arriving in Montreal, Canada on Tuesday, August 31, 2021. As part of her efforts to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, New Zealand requires all incoming travelers, vaccinated or not, to spend 14 days in isolation at a hotel run by the military. Because demand far exceeds supply, New Zealanders are forced to suspend their inalienable right to return home.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – When Silvia Dancose’s daughter called in distress from Canada in August, Dancose immediately flew over to comfort her. But now, after weeks of testing, she doesn’t know when she will 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 countries are forced into a lottery roughly every week for coveted beds in quarantine hotels.

As part of its efforts to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, New Zealand is demanding that all returning citizens and residents – whether vaccinated or not – spend 14 days in self-isolation at a hotel run by the military .

Because demand far exceeds supply, New Zealanders are locked out indefinitely, despite the right of return enshrined in New Zealand’s constitutional provisions and international law.

The quarantine system remains in place despite the New Zealand government admitting this week that it can no longer eliminate the virus. Strict border controls, along with tight closures and aggressive contact tracing, have enabled New Zealand to eliminate every outbreak of the virus for the first 18 months of the pandemic.

For most of that time, people could live without any restrictions, go to work, and complete sports arenas. Only 28 people in the country with a population of 5 million have died from COVID-19.

But an epidemic of the more transmissible delta variant in August proved unstoppable, especially after spreading through marginalized groups, including homeless people and gang members.

Yet strict border measures remain.

For many attempting to return home, it has been particularly infuriating that selected sports stars, politicians and other high-profile personalities roam the system with guaranteed seats upon their return.

For a New Zealander, it was necessary to file a complaint before being able to return 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 requests for an emergency quarantine place, but was refused each time.

As Graham and her husband tried to return home, they flew to Los Angeles, where they lined up with undocumented immigrants at community clinics for medical treatment.

They feared they would be deported from the United States when their visa waiver rights expired, or that delays would prevent them from returning home because the pregnancy would be too late. They feared they would end up with a six-figure medical bill if they had the baby in the United States

“It was inhuman. Everyone’s situation is changing and everyone has the right to come home, ”Graham said. “I felt that right had been taken away from me. It was the strangest feeling.

A London-based group called Grounded Kiwis helped her file a lawsuit in New Zealand seeking judicial review of her case. In less than 48 hours, the government turned around and offered her an emergency place in quarantine last month.

Graham, whose baby is due in mid-November, said she was incredibly relieved to be back home in Auckland, but remains angry with what she’s been through.

One of the founders of Grounded Kiwis is Alexandra Birt, a 29-year-old New Zealand lawyer based in London who has worried about human rights violations.

Birt found time for research when she herself caught COVID-19 in July and took sick leave. She said New Zealand’s quarantine system is down and needs to change.

Many New Zealanders stranded abroad have also been disheartened by the attitude of those staying at home, said Birt, some of whom appear to have little sympathy for their plight and are happy that the borders remain tightly closed.

“People feel totally abandoned by both the government and the New Zealand public,” Birt said.

The New Zealand government says the quarantine system will be vital in its response to the virus for the foreseeable future.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins recently announced plans to add an additional quarantine hotel and start a small trial that would allow some fully vaccinated people to self-isolate at home.

“We want to assure the Kiwis abroad that we are doing everything possible to facilitate their safe return,” he said.

But the system may have already caused symbolic loss. Amazon Studios filmed a season of a TV production inspired by “The Lord of the Rings” in New Zealand, which has a long association with the books by JRR Tolkien.

However, Amazon said it decided to shoot the second season in Britain to expand its production footprint there. However, many people at the local level pointed to the problems Amazon has had in getting its New Zealand cast and crew in and out.

For Dancose, the wait for the return home continues. When her 23-year-old daughter, who studies in Montreal and has a history of depression, contacted her in August, Dancose had just accepted a new job. But she knew she needed to be by her daughter’s side.

“When you’re in New Zealand the narrative is, don’t go there for whatever reasons you may have,” Dancose said. “I have no regrets, however.”

Dancose has logged into a virtual waiting room, where a few thousand places for returnees open up every week or two, often for months into the future.

People are randomly assigned a spot, and Dancose was about 15,000th in the queue, then 24,000th and again 17,000th. She’s not about to get a place.

For now, she’s couch-surfing in Montreal. A Canadian by birth and a New Zealand permanent resident, Dancose has connections in both countries.

Dancose said her daughter is doing much better. She said her new employer has allowed her to work remotely for the time being, although she is expected to interact with people as part of her new job.

Dancose said she had been doubly vaccinated in New Zealand before she left, and remains dismayed that despite doing everything right, she is still not allowed to return home.

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