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‘I won’t believe it until I see it’: Kiwis grounded in B.C. approach New Zealand’s staged border reopening with cautious optimism

New Zealanders have struggled to return home amid the country’s controversial isolation requirements
Hayley clark former whistler local - grounded kiwis
Former Whistler local Hayley Clark was finally able to return home to New Zealand last month, after her seventh attempt to gain entry in a government-sponsored lottery system she described as “a nightmare.”

Bobbi McEwan hasn’t been home to New Zealand in about three years.

The Whistler resident, originally from Cambridge, on the North Island, was just over halfway through her two-year working holiday visa when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, slamming borders shut. In New Zealand, borders closed in March 2020 to anyone but citizens and residents.

“I was like, ‘Well, do I go home, do I live with my parents? Do I have to try and find a job?” McEwan recalled. “Do I have to start all over again while this pandemic is going on, and have to go through all these lockdowns, or do I live in Canada where I’ve already got a roof over my head, I’ve already got a job that’s paying me something, and I’ve already got a foundation and a support network?”

Confident the emergency measures would be long gone by the time her visa ended, McEwan decided to stick it out. But as the days left on her visa ticked down, her home country’s borders stayed airtight, with strict entry limits and quarantine requirements essentially stranding many New Zealanders abroad without valid visas.

“I didn’t have a plan in place,” said McEwan. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get another visa, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get home.”

Luckily, she found a new employer in Whistler who agreed to take her on under a Labour Market Impact Assessment, which allowed McEwan to apply for a work permit.

“I’m very, very grateful,” she said. “There was a few months there where I couldn’t work, but I’m just happy to have a place to live, a job and a roof over my head.”

That hasn’t meant the past two years in Whistler, with little to no possibility of returning home to see her family, have been easy.

HARSH MEASURES

New Zealand has implemented some of the harshest measures in the world amid its efforts to stamp out the virus, barring most foreigners from entering the country and subjecting returning Kiwis to a managed isolation and quarantine program (or MIQ, as it’s better known), first implemented in April of 2020.

The acronym has become associated with heartache for many living abroad.

The MIQ program requires anyone entering the country to isolate at a government-run isolation hotel. In October 2020, it shifted into an allocation system, where travellers were required to have a “MIQ voucher”—or quarantine hotel reservation—before boarding a plane. With only so many spaces available, hopeful travellers at first would need to refresh the government’s MIQ website daily until a small amount of available rooms popped up.

After a Delta outbreak in August 2021, some cases within the country were also required to ride out their isolation period at a MIQ facility. With available spaces further compounded, the government adopted a lottery approach to the MIQ booking system in response to heightened demand. The government schedules a time for a "room release" spanning a set period of dates, with the “virtual lobby” opening an hour prior. Those interested sign into a waiting room and watch the clock count down before being automatically sorted into an online queue.

“If there’s 2,000 rooms, and you’re within the first 2,000 people, you’ve pretty much got a room, but you just have to sit and wait for your number to go down to one” before you can reserve, explained New Zealander Hayley Clark. “So if you’re 2,000th in line, you’re probably going to get a room, but you might not get the room on the date you need … Generally there’d be about 2,000 or 3,000 rooms and about 30,000 people trying in those lotteries.”

Clark, a former Whistlerite who called the resort home for four years before moving to Montreal just before the pandemic struck, was one of the lucky few who managed to get a spot in the lottery in early 2021—on her seventh try. While Clark said she’s supported the MIQ program in theory, she criticized its execution, calling her experience with the lottery “a nightmare” that amounted to “absolute torture.”

“I didn’t get under 10,000th  [in line] until I eventually got my spot,” she said in a Zoom call from Christchurch, where she had just wrapped up her final day of quarantine and plans to stay for a couple of months. Clark has been eager to get home not just to serve as the maid of honour in her best friend’s upcoming wedding, but to see two family members who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses about a year ago.

With every unsuccessful lottery attempt, “It just got more and more stressful,” she said. “It was really difficult and really tough to sit there and watch and go, ‘OK, I’m not going home because of this lottery.’ It has been dubbed the lottery of human misery, and that’s pretty accurate.

“The mental strain of having absolutely no control over it, I think, is understated.”

Another prohibitive factor is MIQ’s cost: Kiwis who plan to stay in New Zealand for under six months are obligated to cover the minimum $1,610 bill for a 10-day stay out-of-pocket.

Emergency exemptions to the lottery system and managed isolation exist as well, but as Clark explained, the bar for these circumstances is exceptionally high.

‘I FEEL LIKE I JUST LUCKED OUT’

Being back in New Zealand “is surreal,” Clark said. “It’s so strange. I’m very happy to be home, but I feel like I just lucked out.”

The border restrictions have meant daily life has been largely normal for most Kiwis since the middle of 2020, but have caused major distress for New Zealanders looking to go home. An advocacy group called Grounded Kiwis filed a judicial review claim in the country’s High Court in Oct. 2021, alleging that the MIQ system breaches the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. That case will be heard in Wellington on Feb. 14.

But last Thursday, Kiwis abroad were given some hope. On Feb. 3, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a five-step border reopening plan that will soon see vaccinated New Zealanders and eligible travellers able to self-isolate and test on arrival, rather than entering MIQ. This option is slated to become available to New Zealanders in Australia on Feb. 27, and open up to Kiwis anywhere else in the world by March 13. If everything goes according to plan, all vaccinated travellers will be able to enter New Zealand in October.

“It is easy to hear the word MIQ and immediately associate it with heartache. There is no question that for New Zealand, it has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic. But the reason that it is right up there as one of the toughest things we have experienced, is in part because large-scale loss of life is not,” said Ardern during last week’s announcement. “The anguish of MIQ has been real and heartbreaking, but the choice to use it undeniably saved lives.”

She added, “MIQ meant not everyone could go home when they wanted to, but it also meant that COVID could not come in when it wanted to, either.”

New Zealand had previously announced in November that MIQ restrictions would ease in early 2022, but those plans were put on hold in December due to the Omicron variant’s surge.

Jenny McAlpine, a New Zealander who has called B.C.’s Interior home for just over two decades, called Ardern’s announcement “welcome news.”

Following the government’s November announcement that MIQ requirements would be ending for New Zealand passport holders this February, McAlpine booked a ticket immediately. “I was so excited,” she said, until the Dec. 20 announcement “shattered” her. “I had about a week with a ticket in hand, making plans with my family—I had a self-isolation plan with my sister at her house, and I’m triple-vaxxed, and they took it away from me,” she said. “I bawled my eyes out for, like, two days.”

McAlpine says Kiwis abroad want to protect their fellow citizens and aren’t looking for a “free-for-all” border reopening, but for reasonable health measures now that the virus is spreading within New Zealand communities. “Now that it’s there, there’s thousands upon thousands of people who are trusted to self-isolate at home, just like we’re doing here in B.C.,” she said.

“I’m happy that the only country in the world barring its citizens to come and go freely is finally waking up,” she added in a follow-up email. “I’m just hoping and praying that the NZ government doesn’t move the goal posts, again.”

Whistler local McEwan shares McAlpine’s skepticism, and remains cautiously optimistic about the prospect of returning home for a visit towards the end of this calendar year. “I won’t believe it until I see it,” she said. “They’re going to be re-evaluating everything. So I’m just like, cool, they’ve announced [a shift to self-isolation], but is it going to keep getting pushed back?”

Being far away from home and unable to hop on a plane on a whim “is not a nice feeling,” said McEwan. While she said she’s fortunate her family is currently well, there was a period earlier in the pandemic where her grandmother was sick and “all I wanted to do was get on a plane and go home and visit my family.”

She explained, “There’s good days; there’s bad days. There was kind of a point where I’m just like, ‘I’m never going home.’”

Armed with the knowledge that harsh border restrictions would continue into 2022, would McEwan have made the same decision to stay in Whistler over returning home to New Zealand nearly two years ago?

“That’s a really tough one,” she said. “I think if I had known then what I know now, I probably would have gone home.”