The be kind message we were all supposed to follow wore thin a long time ago, not least because it was always a message of selective kindness and do as I say not as I do.
A particularly nasty example of this has been in the vitriol directed at those million or so members of the Kiwi diaspora, many of whom have been unable to come home.
A few heartbreaking cases have hit the headlines. Included in those are pensioners whose superannuation payments have been stopped; people trying desperately to get back before family members die and others whose own health requires them to return.
For each of those stories that have become public are many more that have not. Some of them have had urgent reasons for wanting to get back, others might just want to exercise their rights as citizens to enter their homeland.
Anabel Weber, an expat in Copenhagen, has written what that feels like in Wet and Confused. The pandemic experience for New Zealanders abroad.:
Imagine a house. A lovely, mostly harmonious family home with 6 occupants and a great view.
One of the family members, let’s call her Aroha, leaves the house to go to work and plans to see her Nana on the way home. While she’s out it begins to rain. A real downpour which catches everyone by surprise.
Hearing rain outside, the rest of the family lock the doors to prevent water coming in.
Aroha waits it out, hoping the rain will pass. But it continues relentlessly. She can’t stay out forever so decides to don her wet weather gear and venture home.
But the door is locked. Perplexed, hearing them inside she rattles the knob. A familiar voice booms. It sounds like they’re telling her she can’t come in.
“But this is my home!” she responds, confused.
“You made your choice. You should have come back when the rain started.” The family inside shout in unison.
Too tired and hurt to explain that she wasn’t able to leave work or desert Nana when the first drops fell, she whispers “But I’m wearing my rain gear. And I’ll dry off first.” But no-one inside is interested. They’re celebrating how good they are at staying dry and what a hardworking family of 5 they are.
The 6th family member begins to cry. Wounded by the harshness of her famously kind family. A voice calls through the keyhole telling her to stop whinging and that she can in fact come in, she just needs to climb through the peculiar shaped window on the second floor, which they’ll open briefly once a fortnight at 3am.
“It’s easy” they say, “Just come in through the window so you can dry yourself off in the attic. And stop complaining. We’d prefer not to let you in at all.”
But the window on the second floor is in an extremely difficult position, taking two weeks and expensive equipment to reach. Aroha only has limited time before needing to return to her commitments in the morning. Quitting her job and abandoning Nana just to access her own bedroom would be extreme. So she waits it out, becoming evermore distressed.
The rain turns out to be a once in a lifetime weather phenomenon lasting several years. During the years that she is locked out Aroha knocks on the door intermittently to see if anyone has had a change of heart. From inside she hears a well rehearsed shout: “How selfish of you, wanting to come in here and drown us all with your outside water”.
Inevitably there’s a leak in the roof. It’s managed with a system of pots and pans to catch the drips which seems to be working. Spooked, the family hurriedly put on rain clothes.
Seeing the frenzy through the windows, Aroha enquires hopefully “Now you’re all protected, can I come in?”
“No. That would be like turning on a firehose during a flood” the family spokesperson sternly replies. “And the rain is getting heavier now so we’re shutting the window on the roof indefinitely.”
Aroha suffers an intense identity crisis. She’s always been part of this family, the only one she has. But, who is she now that she’s not included inside. Nights are sleepless, unable to relax, anxiously worrying about if something happens to her family and she can’t get in to help them. Or if something happens to her and no one can be there.
Meanwhile, the family members decide to throw a party to celebrate their hard work staying dry. They invite entertainers and famous people from outside to make it extra special. But these visitors from the outside don’t use the peculiar shaped window on the roof, they have a regular shaped door to the attic or even their own bedroom, for which they are given a key on request. Aroha watches in disbelief as they enter, some go in and out as many as 3 times.
As Aroha’s cries get louder and more desperate the neighbours overhear and enquire with the family. The leader of the house dismisses their concerns simply.
“Aroha can come home, she just doesn’t like what’s for dinner” they are told. Overhearing this misrepresentation, Aroha further loses faith and trust.
All the other houses on the street allow their family members to come in freely to dry off. Every other house in the town has adopted ways of managing drips to prevent flooding. Not Aroha’s. When her siblings enquire whether there’s another way, the matriarch reminds them how dangerous the outside is and how lucky they are, silencing any scepticism swiftly.
Once a week the head of the household conducts a family meeting. She addresses each member directly and thanks them for their contribution to the family of 5, resulting in them all staying dry. There is no mention of Aroha. No acknowledgement of her sacrifice, pain, suffering. There are many references to the risk “outsiders” pose to the 5 family members.
Meanwhile outside, Aroha sobs through her tears. “I have a bedroom inside. My belongings are in there…” her words disappear into the darkness. She feels helpless. No-one is interested.
This is the story of Grounded Kiwis, the diaspora of more than 1 million New Zealand citizens abroad. The key tactic of New Zealand’s pandemic response was strict border controls. While we all understood and respected the role these restrictions had on suppressing the spread while NZ got prepared, instead the population largely got comfy and decided it was better without us at all. From 2021 onwards it became particularly difficult for Kiwis flying the flag abroad to get home. Capacity in the mandatory Managed Isolation hotels was increasingly suppressed, and sometimes stopped entirely for weeks or months on end, causing immeasurable stress. There are many reasons why we are overseas. There is no justifiable reason to lock the door on us.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a plan to reopen New Zealand in 5 stages over the course of 2022. While this offers hope and a greater amount of certainty than we had previously, the plan has not yet been implemented and will be reviewed on 20 February. If it goes ahead, citizens from all countries will be able to return home to self isolate from 14 March 2022. But thousands of migrants separated from their families (including parents from their young children) will need to wait until October 2022 to be reunited.
Shutting the borders at the outset of the pandemic could be justified.
Continuing the MIQueue of misery for so long which was effectively keeping them closed to citizens and residents, except for the few ones who through luck managed to gain an MIQ spot in the lottery could not.
Andrew Geddis writes:
. . Equally, two years of life with MIQ has made that system’s demands (and foibles) more of a reality for more and more people. I don’t just mean those who have been forced to spend their money on a boat instead of their annual holiday to Europe. Rather, those of us who have been two years apart from family who happened to be making their lives outside this country. Two years in which marriages have happened, babies have been born, funerals have been held; all the human moments of joy and connection that make a life of value. The cost of either putting them on hold or missing out on them completely is cumulative in its effect. While we might sacrifice them on a temporary basis, a third year of loss becomes a real weight to put against the benefits that our elimination strategy delivered.
There is no doubt that, with a few exceptions for which Aucklanders in particular paid a very high price, MIQ kept wide community transmission of Covid 19 at bay. However, the system was far from perfect and open to accusations of being both unfair and inhumane.
Equally inexcusable is the selective kindness of those criticising the diaspora and wanting to keep the borders closed. Perhaps they have forgotten the words which brought the PM fame after the mosque massacre – they are us.
That begs three questions: does she still remember them, did she really mean them and if so why haven’t they applied to all New Zealanders whether or not they are in New Zealand?
The tens of thousands of people who missed out on the MIQ lottery of misery, and the many others who didn’t even bother trying their luck could be justified in saying the answer to all three of those questions is no..