Thalf a month ago, when New Zealand returned to work after a quick and effective closure, prime minister Jacinda Ardern thank him “Team five million”. In fact, there are 6 million New Zealanders, with an estimated 1 million of us overseas. Many eventually returned to life. Even if you don’t, you will always be a Kiwi.
Or so we thought. Although lobbied by the diaspora, New Zealanders returned less than 90 days (or left of their own volition) subject to fines for two weeks they were in solitary confinement. The responsible minister, Megan Woods, is clear: if we want to “rejoin the team”, we must be prepared to pay. Many of us are surprised to know that we will stop.
The proposal at least gives exceptions for New Zealanders who return to life – a reprieve for those whose homecoming plans are interrupted by a pandemic (although the National has promised to reverse this, if he can form a government in the September election). There will also be scope for relief for reasons of compassion, such as seeing a dying relative or attending a funeral.
But for those who cannot visit for at least three months – extending to most of us who are fortunate enough to remain employed – that policy means a minimum fee of $ 3,100 (£ 1,600), on flights, just to enter the country.
To say that would only apply to “a limited number of people”, as has already happened reported, failed to take into account things that will not be returned. In addition to flights and work leave (and, in some cases, a second quarantine bill after returning), this fee will make Aotearoa inaccessible to all except the richest foreign nationals in the future.
Certainly obstacles to travel during the global pandemic cannot be avoided, and all but important travel must be removed. What sucks is the current costs, for many people, obstacles that cannot be overcome (including in emergencies) – and they are imposed by choice, not necessity, by governments which many of us proudly choose.
To demand payment of Māori’s return, their claim to the land enshrined in the Waitangi Treaty, was terrible. As the Berlin poet Hinemoana Baker said: “I hope – and I say this in the strongest terms – that being Māori might be considered a compassionate reason.” (So far Woods just say that the government is being careful to ensure that “what we put in place is legal”.)
Woods has defended the proposal because it provides a fair balance between protecting the borders of New Zealand and allowing the freedom of its citizens to move. It is undeniable that careful attention to quarantine newcomers has played a big role in Covid-19’s success story in that country – but no one has tried to cancel it. Although some high profile absorbents, most Kiwis abroad have received 14 days of stay under the hotel mandate as a fair travel expense. But to charge us for it?
As stated by Six Million Team Campaign who mobilize the diaspora (I am among them), quarantine new arrivals not only for their benefit, but for all of New Zealand, and must be funded as part of the response of the national coronavirus and the public health system. In the bigger picture, costs raise questions about the rights of citizens and citizens when they enter their countries.
Even if there is no completion of the user-payment model for managed isolation, this prescriptive approach is unfair: are other options explored, such as low-cost, self-contained accommodation, or one free visit every two years? Contrary to how it has been framed, $ 3,100 is not a joint payment; it is approaching full cost recovery for an individual. If the aim is to prevent unnecessary trips, lower costs – even $ 1,500 – will succeed.
However, even at the exorbitant rate proposed, the scheme is expected to rise between only $ 2.2 million and $ 9 million in revenue, almost nothing at all to offset the overall managed cost of half a billion dollars. That raises the question: why introduce such a divisive policy at all? Two months from the election, it slapped a concession for ugly xenophobia that has emerged as a dark side to Covid’s shiny New Zealand success story.
The National Party, which fought in opposition, quickly sparked widespread ill will towards newcomers for violations Covid’s free line of the country and escape from quarantine. This has painted Kiwi homing as opportunistic gadabouts, take time out of “A high-paying career or expensive vacation in Europe” to spread the virus – highlighting the unmistakable neglect and even hatred of Kiwis abroad.
This thinking is so founded in New Zealand culture that there is a name for it: “high poppy syndrome”, refers to the urge to reduce the size that is seen as successful or superior. The pre-pandemic was in addition to the view that those who had “overseas experience” brought home profits. Indeed, many of New Zealand’s leading public figures – Katherine Mansfield, Kate Sheppard, Anna Paquin – moved there as a kid or left as a young adult.
But in the battle to keep the country free from Covid, the “five million team” has turned against overseas Kiwis who might dare to want to return, the question of the cost of dividing friends and family into what might be likened to Leave versus Remain. It is true that those who make permanent steps must be exempt from this fee, but by establishing citizens as “temporary visitors”, the government gives credence to the narrative “we are against them”.
Woods told Radio New Zealand that the government has “a lot of anecdotal data about New Zealanders and citizens who choose to return for a vacation in their country because it is highly desirable in the world”. He framed quarantine fees, arrogantly and reductively, when a check on New Zealanders decided “they want to go back and go skiing or our beautiful summer”.
But my Facebook feed has been flooded with stories of personal despair from this policy, some of which I have been allowed to share. This one is heartbreaking in his statement: “That means I will not see my wife and children until this is over, I suppose.”
For an illustration of all dishonest politicians about high-paying jobs in London and strategic ski retreats, I see little to suggest that New Zealanders overseas do not understand what is at stake in a global pandemic. Precisely because the stakes appear to be higher than before, they are prepared to face risks, costs, time off and quarantine for 14 days in times of great financial difficulties.
For many, it is the government costs that ultimately push it out of reach – though some will undoubtedly demand compassionate release. The details have not been announced, but I can’t help but feel that true compassion will support citizens to return, not asking them to defend their case.
What is clearly absent in this discussion is empathy, and leadership – which makes Ardern world famous. The proposal, which discriminates against all but the richest members of the diaspora, is a rare failure not just of affection but of imagination – to reach a more equal solution, and to imagine painful personal circumstances where it might be needed.
Apart from any disrupted plans or looming family emergencies, the payment is a symbolic blow to our sense of national identity, belonging to New Zealand from afar. Ardern has also expressed reluctance to review laws that link voting with visits every three years – even when the pandemic (and now, this policy) makes it almost impossible. “I want people to feel like they are maintaining that connection,” he said, “but of course choosing only one way to show your connection to New Zealand.”
Indeed, many Kiwis abroad do not intend to return while coronavirus is an imminent threat – no exception to do our part in overcoming it. But to know that we might be painted as defectors who like to serve themselves and ski if we sting as much as the bill. “The money is hard, but the bad reaction is worse,” said a proud Kiwi, 20 years old in London. Instead of giving up on the “team”, it feels more like we’ve booted off.
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