George Fenwick, a New Zealander living in London, on feeling abandoned
In February, when Auckland was placed in a three-day lockdown due to community cases of Covid-19, The AM Show host Duncan Garner asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern why MIQ facilities were still letting people into the country. "Why don't we pull that back?" he sniffed. "There's thousands that come in every month. Why?"
Ardern addressed Garner directly, her voice firm despite flickers of frustration in her eyes. "Because, Duncan, you and I, and the rest of New Zealand, have a legal obligation to allow citizens to return to their home country," she said. "You cannot deem someone stateless, because it could mean that they're stranded in a country they have no legal right to be."
I remember watching that interview from my flat in London and feeling proud – proud that I had a Prime Minister who was committed not only to protecting the health and wellbeing of her citizens but also their legal rights, while the Prime Minister of the country I was in could not accept that his own blunders had let Covid-19 spread to the point of thousands dying every day. It was a feeling I was used to: pride that New Zealand had managed the pandemic so well and pride whenever Brits told me how jealous they were.
Six months later, I don't recognise that feeling. Ardern's impassioned words to Garner feel hollow. With MIQ completely booked out and New Zealand essentially locked to all but those who can sneak in using bots, I - and countless other Kiwis abroad - feel stateless.
The situation we all face – Kiwis back home and abroad – is a complicated wash of difficult choices and hurt people. I agree with the Government: there's no silver bullet. But it hurts to see people defending MIQ tooth-and-nail, despite the system's obvious inequalities and technical failures.
On Saturday, Labour MP Dr Deborah Russell declared MIQ a "resounding success" because it has protected Kiwis from community transmission since February. That's like cooking a delicious meal for a dinner party only to serve it to half the guests and call it a "resounding success" while the other half go hungry. I am thankful, every day, that my friends and family have been protected from the horrors of Covid-19 but I am also terribly homesick and in disbelief that we're 18 months into the pandemic and I can't get home.
Some take the view that it's our fault: we left. That's true. I left New Zealand for an overseas adventure, just like my parents both did in their 20s, along with countless other Kiwis I know. But going away was always contingent on the inevitability of coming back. When I left in 2019, no one could have predicted what was coming - and that's nobody's fault, not the Government's, not mine. But when Covid did strike, it hit the UK hard and coming home became an increasingly complicated prospect. The first wave was scary and isolating: case numbers and deaths were in the thousands every day, and I hunkered down in London where my job was. By the end of that year I'd lost my job and income, meaning I couldn't afford to come back. As the UK's second wave crested, I spent five months in lockdown again, this time throughout the UK's frigid winter, an experience I would never wish on anyone back in New Zealand. The toll that kind of isolation takes on your mental health, compounded by icy temperatures and minimal daylight hours, is heavy.
Now it's been two years since I've seen any of my family, and even longer for others. Our heartache isn't about wanting to travel willy-nilly during a pandemic chasing beach holidays. It's about people who left New Zealand – an experience that comes with its own heartbreaks and impossible decisions – with the expectation that their home would welcome them back with open arms. It's about living through a traumatic, world-altering event far away from everyone you love, and being told to suck it up when you want to see them. It's about being told you need to join the queue like everyone else, only to read that people like actor Thomasin McKenzie have done MIQ three times.
I and so many others hoping to get home are fully vaccinated and, while I know that's not absolute protection, it greatly reduces the risk of bringing the Delta variant home. I understand the hesitancy behind at-home isolation but, if that's not an option, the fact that capacity in MIQ itself has only been reduced stings even more. Any increase raises the risk of infections slipping through the cracks but with the addition of rigorous pre-departure testing, those of us who are vaccinated could mediate that risk as early as possible.
I'm not exaggerating when I say there are some of us who would do absolutely anything to get home: the other day, my friend Edith said, "I'll swim if I have to."
On Wednesday night, I went for dinner with a group of Kiwi friends. The shine still hasn't worn off being social after lockdown in London, so spirits were high – until the conversation turned to MIQ. The mood steadily plummeted as people shared stories of missed weddings, birthdays and funerals. The shared ache we all felt in missing home was palpable. But there was something else, too: rejection. The usual experience of being a Kiwi in London is being constantly reminded that you grew up in the best country in the world and that we're so lucky to have a smart, empathetic leader. It was once a nice feeling. But every day, it becomes harder to agree with.
It's difficult to feel proud of a country that feels as though it has turned its back on you.