Four months stranded, four tickets cancelled, and two weeks in isolation – Merja Myllylahti shares her nightmarish story of getting home during a pandemic

After a gruelling 54+ hours travel via Helsinki-Frankfurt-Dubai-Bangkok, I arrived back to Auckland on July 10 having being stranded in Finland for four months. At last luck was on my side: I got a ticket for Finnair and Emirates flights before the airlines agreed with the New Zealand Government to freeze new bookings for a while. At the Auckland Airport health check, I broke in tears. Not because they took my temperature, but because I was utterly exhausted, overwhelmed, relieved, and sad at the same time.

I know my case is not unique. On the plane from Bangkok, I met two Kiwi ladies who got stranded in England and Scotland for a similar period, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Kiwis still in a similar situation.

Once processed at the airport, I was whisked away with 20 other people to Rotorua for the two weeks in managed isolation. En route, we had a short toilet stop guarded by three armed police officers. I never have felt so safe, yet scared, when using a lavatory. Once we arrived at our hotel, which I will not name out of respect for all the kind people working here, the check-in was like a well-oiled machine: we were processed with military precision by army personnel, by health care workers and people from the civil aviation authority.

Everything was handled professionally and efficiently. I was assigned a double room on the third floor. While reading information about hotel policies, I noticed that you are not allowed to order alcohol to the premises from the local supermarket. Instead, you are allowed to order it from room service – at a price: a standard bottle of wine is $30 and a bottle of beer $8.50, which may explain why some people escape, and want to escape, from these isolation units.

An informative, yet intriguing “Welcome Pack” booklet warns that media will haunt us because there is “high public interest” for managed isolation and how it is, well, managed. We are not forbidden to talk to media, but we are preferred not to. I try to keep that in mind.

It took more than 50 hours of travelling to make it back to New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

The next two days felt like limbo as I was so jetlagged – all those hours travelling and the time difference taking their toll. We are delivered three meals a day, and there is far too much food when you are only doing 1000 steps or less per day. But it is reasonable quality and always delivered with a smile.

I do appreciate all these people working here as they risk their own health every day, and I doubt they get any extra monetary reward for it. One of the hardest things for me is not to be able to go out for my usual long daily walk. We do have a small area in front of the hotel where we can get a dose of fresh air every day, although you are not allowed not to do anything too sweaty there. So I just stay in my room because I am scared that I may pick up the virus at the hotel, and that would be a disaster happening at the final step. I had my own Covid-19 test on day three and it was quick and uncomfortable, but not painful. I wish for a negative result as I am completely symptomless.

I hope I can put this five-month roller coaster behind soon. It started at the end of February when I travelled to Finland to bury my Dad, and to look after my 83-year old mother. When I left New Zealand, I told my family and friends that this journey is the hardest I have ever done, and I did not quite know how painful it would turn out to be.

In mid-March, we were told that we could have only 10 people at my father’s funeral. So after organising it according to his wishes, I had to cancel all the plans and memorial service. Despite that, we did have a chance to say goodbye to him; so many people in so many countries have not had the same opportunity, so I am grateful for that.

Soon after, Finland’s capital Helsinki closed its borders, and my domestic flight was cancelled. To be on the safe side, I had bought two sets of tickets – via Tokyo and via Doha – to get home as our Government was urging Kiwis to fly home. Both my flights were cancelled in a matter of hours, and my window to get back was closed in a period of 48 hours. There were simply no flights.

After that I effectively spent six weeks in self-isolation in a remote cottage in a Finnish forest. It was a pretty lonely existence, but I was able to work remotely (from 17,000km away) despite being in a completely different time zone.

Since the Finnish government closed Helsinki’s borders in April, it was May before I was able to move back there in the hope of being able catch a flight back home. It was great to be in a big city again because I have friends and family there. However, this period proved challenging because there was so much stress about organising flights.

Booking tickets which were constantly cancelled, then you rebooked them, and having the flights changed again, or one leg of the journey dropped. Air New Zealand cancelled my flight twice. I started to fear e-mails or Messenger messages from airlines because they always carried bad news.

Managed isolation in Rotorua. Photo: Supplied 

At the same time, news back from New Zealand did nothing but add to my anxiety. The whole issue of how to treat returning Kiwis seemed to become highly politicised and publicised ahead of the upcoming elections, and we citizens outside the border became pinballs in this political game.

First, there was the whole debate of charging people who returned for the period in isolation. This felt so grossly unfair, as I left before the country went into lockdown. Then, the news stories broke that the Government might instruct Kiwis to stay abroad because the isolation hotels were at full capacity.

Not long after, they froze the flights to New Zealand for the next three weeks. At the same time, social media seemed full of hateful posts about us, fellow citizens stranded abroad. The rhetoric was so hostile, especially when you were so isolated, stranded abroad.

I do understand that everyone has suffered differently under lockdown, and we all have made some sacrifices, but when your fellow citizens talk about you in terms such as “them” and “these people”, it is deeply hurtful and upsetting. Some social media commentators were urging the Government to close the borders to “keep them out” and to “make these people pay.” I pretty quickly became a news avoider, and weaned myself off social media, although sadly not completely successfully.

So, at a moment, I am in isolation, and count myself lucky: I got finally in before the flights were frozen, the borders stayed open, I made it through, and at the time of writing, I am healthy.

Dr Merja Myllylahti is co-director of AUT research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy and leader of the centres' trust in news project.

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