The media spectacle around the return of Breakers basketballer Tom Abercrombie's family to New Zealand inspired a few sweary reactions in my house last week.
It was probably after he explained his family's situation - specifically the needs of two of his children - and the regret over the use of social media to a third news outlet that discussion on the topic was banned. The general consensus: The family's situation had been portrayed unfairly in the media and that Tom had spoken really well about their experience.
I agreed with both counts. But as with a lot of mangled news stories, disdain for what was initially fired into the public sphere meant some of the pertinent issues highlighted by the Abercrombies' situation fell by the wayside.
We're a year into the Covid pandemic and our borders are likely to remain closed for 2021, so it is worth taking time to examine these.
The MIQ exemption process
The furore around the Abercrombies stemmed from the family's efforts - and ultimate success - to gain a medical exemption to isolate at home. Abercrombie's wife Monique-Raquel and her three children applied once they decided to return to New Zealand due to a Covid-19 outbreak in Melbourne at the end of December. It took about 10 days for the exemption to be approved, which came through on the family's third day in an MIQ hotel.
MBIE - the ministry in charge of MIQ - says all medical exemption applications are considered on a case-by-case basis against a set of strict criteria. A dedicated team assesses applications. All are treated fairly. The threshold to receive an exemption for MIQ is also extremely high because of the public health risk.
While the Abercrombies received their exemption in 10 days, other families have had to wait longer for an outcome. Just before Christmas, RNZ reported on a father who applied for an exemption for his mentally unwell son on December 1. The father requested his son either isolate at home with him, or he join him in a MIQ facility for isolation. It took three weeks before officials confirmed the latter was possible.
The Abercrombies, and this father and son, both received positive outcomes. However, the process varied significantly in each case. At this point in the pandemic, inconsistencies and lack of process are unacceptable. MIQ facilities rely on people's ability to manage 14 days inside a hotel room. As shown, this is not practical and/or safe for everyone. Viable alternative options should be available for those who need it in a timely manner.
Hygiene standards in MIQ facilities
Since the implementation of the MIQ system, there's been a steady stream of people and news stories highlighting problems. These range from substandard processes inside the hotels to extensive delays for an MIQ spot. The Abercrombie family hit headlines when Monique-Raquel tweeted about the conditions of the hotel room that she and her three children were staying in. She also tagged Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
In interviews last week, Abercrombie said that in hindsight complaining in this manner wasn't the right way to go about things. However, like others who have chosen to speak publicly about problems inside MIQ facilities, the Abercrombies' concerns regarding room cleanliness should be taken seriously. Transmission of Covid within an MIQ facility was the source of the most recent community cases. Upkeep of hygiene standards in rooms should be basic practise by now.
Show-and-tell in the media
Accusations of favouritism were levelled at the Abercrombies after it became public knowledge they were allowed to isolate in their home. These focused on Abercrombie's status as a professional basketballer, and his wife's decision to highlight their family's situation on Twitter. For the record, Abercrombie said the family's application did not receive any special treatment, and they applied in the same way anyone else would.
Perhaps the more significant takeaway should be around the wider pattern cases like theirs highlights. That is, the tendency for officials to react once they hit the news. Recently, the plight of terminally ill man Trevor Ponting to return to New Zealand with his family was highlighted by the media. Ponting and his family had initially been denied an emergency spot in MIQ despite him being given only months to live. The decision was reversed a day after his story was published. The case of the father and son detailed earlier also received a resolution from MIQ shortly after RNZ featured the family's story. Unfortunately, the Abercrombies are part of a larger group of families who have encountered problems with MIQ systems.
Yes, media coverage of problems of those is important. However, people should not be required to publicly showcase adverse circumstances to receive attention from officials.
We've already had a year to learn. Let's use that to make this one easier.