From an MIQ facility in Christchurch, Marc Daalder writes that the people on both sides of the border are getting carried away with callous rhetoric

I’m in MIQ.

At the start of January, I travelled back to the United States (where I’m from) to see my parents and brother. I hadn’t seen them for more than two years at that point.

For most of 2021, it looked like we’d hit the third year apart before I saw them again.

Then the Government announced in late November that the borders would open progressively from mid-January.

The next day, there was an MIQ lottery which only 5426 people attended because many now planned to come back without MIQ in early 2022. I was ranked around 900 and finally got a spot.

The day after that, news broke of a new variant of the coronavirus spreading like lightning in South Africa. I decided to keep and use the spot, rather than wait for the forecast border opening.

Now, I’ve arrived back in New Zealand (and in the Sudima Airport Hotel in Christchurch) at what seems to be the emotional height of a debate over MIQ.

On the one hand, there are fierce partisans who view anyone wanting to return to the country as a selfish Omicron super-spreader. “If you liked it so much overseas that you left New Zealand in the first place, why don’t you stay there?” seems to be the sneering attitude from a loud minority of border hawks.

On the other hand, there’s an equally irate portion of those trapped overseas (or trapped in New Zealand and wanting to leave and then come back) who see the border policies as evidence of a totalitarian government gone mad with power. To them, the elimination strategy and our subsequent efforts to keep the virus under control are overreactions to a pathogen no more dangerous than the flu – particularly given the Omicron variant causes less severe disease on an individual basis.

Stuck in the middle are the vast bulk of New Zealanders on both sides of the border, who understand the reason for the border policies but who are still personally affected by them or see considerable room for improvement.

The Charlotte Bellis saga has thrown this situation into sharp relief. Bellis is a pregnant New Zealander who was forced to leave the country she lived in (Qatar) because it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried there. She obviously has a right and a need to come home to give birth, rather than to do so in Afghanistan, where she is currently based.

Some of the hardliners overseas and some politicians have seized on the moment to go further and call for the total abolition of MIQ for vaccinated New Zealanders.

These people are wrong. Similar calls for an end to MIQ were heard during the Delta outbreak last year. At one stage, experts calculated that the risk of catching Covid-19 in Auckland was higher than the risk of having it as an incoming passenger.

Marc Daalder is currently in MIQ at the Sudima Airport Hotel in Christchurch. Photo: Marc Daalder 

And yet, despite the doomsday predictions of a flood of Covid-19 cases as restrictions continued to ease – some of which were made by me – Delta was nearly crushed over the summer. If Omicron hadn’t been lurking in the wings, we might well have eliminated or effectively suppressed Delta and returned to a Covid-free life.

Clearly, advocacy for scrapping MIQ was premature.

We find ourselves in a similar situation today. Omicron is spreading in the community and dire but realistic predictions are being made about the thousands or even tens of thousands of daily cases we can expect. In that situation, is there really a justification for MIQ?

The answer is probably not – but we’re not quite in that situation yet. Someday, likely soon, we will have a roaring outbreak of Omicron. But until we get there, calls to abolish MIQ are just as premature as they were late last year.

It’s important to note that Bellis herself has never made any such statements. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from social media, where the past few days have seen a desperate effort to poke holes in her story. That was only compounded by the Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins issuing a statement on Monday with private information about Bellis’ case – which she said she had not given anyone permission to share.

This effort seems to be a reaction to Bellis’ critiques of the MIQ system which denied her application for an emergency allocation. Those criticisms have been built into a strawman in which Bellis is alleged to be attacking the entire concept of MIQ itself and proposing a “let it rip” Covid-19 policy.

This harsh backlash targets anyone who complains about MIQ, regardless of whether their concerns are outlandish or common sense. But the system is clearly imperfect. Bellis’ situation is the perfect case study – surely we can build a better border that allows those with real need (like pregnant New Zealanders) to come home? Although she received an MIQ spot on Tuesday, that came only after several days of media and opposition pressure. What about the hundreds of other pregnant New Zealanders who have been denied emergency spots?

The precursor to the current lottery was a frantic race to refresh the MIQ page and snag a room before everyone else had. That was arbitrary and unfair. The new lottery is just arbitrary. Neither are capable of taking people’s personal circumstances into account.

In fact, the only functioning exemption system is the one which lets sports teams come and go at will, as well as overseas music acts and prominent businesspeople. Although she has staked her reputation on kindness, Jacinda Ardern runs a border which the Wiggles have an easier time crossing than do many New Zealanders in need.

The next few weeks will be the most challenging yet for New Zealand’s pandemic response. In a time as tense as this, it’s easy to understand how nuance vanishes in favour of fear-driven dogmatism.

Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Perhaps predicting this sort of situation, the Human Rights Commission launched a campaign last year asking everyone to Dial It Down.

At the time, I joked about it. New Zealand’s social cohesion throughout the pandemic – the team of five million – has been one of our strongest assets and it didn’t seem like that was going anywhere anytime soon.

Turns out, the commission was pretty prescient. MIQ is just the first of many issues we might find New Zealanders seriously divided on in the coming months. Division and disagreement isn’t inherently bad – but when it turns nasty, that’s a problem.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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