By Lamia Imam*
New Zealand has become the shining example of what to do in a pandemic around the world. Our success with locking down and stopping community transmission is the envy of the world.
I know this because I live in Texas, which is one of the hardest hit places in the United States and my friends are constantly reminding me about how fortunate Kiwis were with their government response.
And make no mistake, it is the government response that allowed New Zealand to be the success story it is. We are all reliant on expert advice and collective action to survive this pandemic and some of us have not been fortunate enough to receive that.
I have had the unique experience of being in a country with one of the best pandemic responses (New Zealand - level 4 lockdown) and one of the worst pandemic responses (Texas, United States - current). These two countries have had wildly different responses and our border response definitely stands out.
As the debate around whether those in quarantine should pay for their own quarantine heats up, I will make my position clear from the beginning - they should not. This policy would simply punish people who are already under immense stress and anxiety in their country of residence. A public health crisis cannot be solved through punitive measures.
I was unexpectedly stuck in New Zealand while I was visiting with my American husband. I am a Kiwi on a work visa in the United States because despite being married to an American, I don't have any permanent status here due to President Donald Trump's various immigration directives.
As New Zealand shut down and the US consulate closed, we were unable to leave during level 4. I personally faced criticism when we did leave because I was going into what is generally accepted to be the worst place to be right now. But unfortunately I did not have a choice.
Both of our jobs were on the line and we would have both lost them. We have a home in Texas (it is a rental, but it is still home with all our stuff) and we would be liable for breaking the lease early. We would also have to figure out a way to pack things up while being out of the country during a pandemic when almost everything was shut.
The financial and emotional burden of being stuck in someone else's house didn't make staying tenable. We arrived back home eventually and basically put ourselves in level 4 lockdown even though Texas was largely opening up around two weeks after we got back. We have remained in a self-imposed level 4 lockdown since then (because we know that works!)
We are very fortunate that we have been able to retain our jobs through this pandemic, however, our income and jobs are not guaranteed. As the situation gets worse here, companies like mine will be re-evaluating their workforce every quarter, and layoffs are always looming (especially in a "right to work state like Texas" where employment can be terminated for any reason).
As I am still on a visa, I would be forced to leave if I was laid off. My husband has no status in New Zealand and it will take him months to get a status (if he does), which inevitably means we will be separated. This is my story, and it is not the saddest.
There are more than a million Kiwis living all around the world, many in much more precarious work and visa situations than mine. There are Kiwis with varying levels of savings and job security.
Protection for everyone in NZ
New Zealand's proposed quarantine policy for returning Kiwis has been put in place to protect New Zealanders in New Zealand. The cost of it is paid for by the New Zealand taxpayers to protect those who are in the country, not those of us who are outside.
For Kiwis travelling back - whatever the reason may be - the quarantine does not benefit them in any way. Those who do not have Covid do not need to be isolated, and those who do will not get any better by being in quarantine. The quarantine policy is there to protect everyone else. They are there to protect everyone in New Zealand.
So when I hear the argument, "why should my tax dollars go to helping you," I say - your tax dollars are going towards helping you stay Covid-free. This policy does not take into account that many Kiwis overseas do pay taxes in New Zealand, interest on their student loans (like myself), and contribute in many other ways.
There is a reason New Zealand has a (mostly free) public health system unlike the United States, where everyone is essentially paying for themselves, often risking bankruptcy from just needing basic healthcare.
We understand the collective value of spreading the burden because it benefits society as a whole. Any New Zealander coming back to New Zealand can access that public healthcare system immediately. This quarantine is not a two-week vacation but a healthcare policy designed to protect those already in New Zealand. Overseas Kiwis are putting themselves in isolation for your safety.
If there is a cost, there is a higher chance that the individualisation will lower compliance. If quarantine is marketed as a "hotel stay", people may treat it like that - risking our country's Covid-free status.
I was a part of the Team of 5 Million in Level 4 Lockdown, and now I am a part of the Team of 6 Million - complying with local laws, following health guidelines, keeping a job, and trying to survive the pandemic.
I have not made any decision lightly and it's been an agonising process trying to make sure I'm doing the right thing for my family, my country, and my community. And when I return home to New Zealand, regardless of whether I return on my timeline or due to circumstances outside my control, it will not be an easy decision either.
I will not forget the work that's been done to keep everyone safe and healthy. The idea that folks are popping over for a holiday or businesses are taking advantage is silly. The pandemic has not made life easy for the vast majority of people everywhere. Whether people have left for a short OE, pursuing higher education, better job opportunities, visiting family, or for love interests - being able to return to your country should not be subject to financial impositions from our own government.
The pandemic is likely to stay with us for a little while longer. Our public health policies need to take this additional cost into account, as they would with a financial crisis or environmental crisis. The government has allocated funding for this already.
Preventing the spread of Covid at the border should be part of the Covid response spending, as it is the most essential component right now. None of us are responsible for this virus, and all of us want to be safe and healthy. All a "user pays" policy does is make a handful of disgruntled voters feel better that their tax dollars aren't going to a hotel stay. It doesn't actually serve the public at all and should be antithetical to our values and te Tiriti.
*Lamia Imam belongs to a coalition of Kiwis living overseas called Team of Six Million, who are working to eliminate the imposition of quarantine fees on returning/arriving folks to New Zealand.