New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern claimed success in the fight against Covid-19. Photo: AFP / Marty Melville

When Covid-19 swept the globe in the first few months of 2020, much of the world looked to New Zealand as an example of how to handle the crisis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was already an international darling, and the swift and proactive measures her government put in place early on only served to cement her reputation as a dynamic young leader.

In March 2020, Justin Walker, a general manager for a medical manufacturing company, had just returned to New Zealand from a regular stint in Yongin, South Korea.

“I applauded our government for the early intervention,” he said. “Most everyone did.”   

It wasn’t until he headed back to Korea for his work and once again returned to New Zealand through its “Managed Isolation and Quarantine System” (MIQ) that he began to see cracks in the armor.

“The Korean quarantine system was really well done, but New Zealand’s left a lot to be desired,” he said.

He described a hotel in central Auckland where the supposedly isolated guests were free to mingle outside their rooms and even drink at the bar for an hour each evening.

“I didn’t leave my room for 14 days out of safety concerns. From what I saw around me, I knew trouble was coming. It was written on the wall.” 

A health worker conducts a test at a Covid-19 testing center in the suburb of Northcote in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: AFP / David Rowland

The Delta variant eventually made its way into New Zealand through a breach of this system, resulting in further restrictions and widespread lockdowns. This, in turn, put strain on the MIQ system: More beds were required for the new outbreak, and the number of Kiwis competing for just 3,000 beds at times ballooned to 30,000. Demand consistently exceeded supply.

Walker, who has a wife and young son in New Zealand, returned to South Korea in late June. He hoped to get back home in time for Christmas, but found himself at the mercy of the slow and hopelessly overloaded lottery system, often getting up at 3am to spend hours to log in to attempt to secure a slot.

“There was no logic or clarity to it,” he said. “It was soul-destroying.”

He eventually scored a slot for mid-January 2022, though it took him eight tries. The overall experience has left a bitter taste in his mouth. 

“In the beginning the government bought themselves time and could’ve used it to build hospitals and infrastructure, but they’ve wasted it instead.” 

Cherie Brown, an assistant professor at Japan’s Akita International University, had hoped to retire last summer and settle back in New Zealand, where her children, grandchildren and ailing 95-year-old mother await her. Instead, she found herself bogged down trying to secure an MIQ slot online.

“The system involves a process every week,” she said. “They give notice that a lottery will be held 24 to 48 hours ahead of time. These are usually held on a Tuesday or Thursday during New Zealand business hours, making it extra-difficult for people in different time zones.”

Despite the hurdles, she was determined to secure her place.  

“During my summer holidays in August, I spent seven hours each day sitting trying to get a space and being unsuccessful.” 

Brown, however, is not alone. She is one of tens of thousands of Kiwis abroad who have been effectively barred from returning home by their own government. The MIQ lottery system has made it so difficult to come back that many have been stranded in countries with expired visas and no means of supporting themselves

“Some are living in cars or depending on the hospitality of strangers,” Brown said.

Not only have New Zealanders abroad faced the hardships of pandemic-induced exile, but they’ve also endured hostility from their fellow citizens online. Many Kiwi commenters have savaged those trying to return as privileged, selfish, and willing to put the country at risk through increased exposure to the virus.

“All of these hurtful criticisms demonstrate no understanding of the varied circumstances of the people who are stuck outside the country. There are people like me who’ve had to work outside of New Zealand because there were not enough opportunities for us,” Brown said. “The government hasn’t offered a single kind word.”

A signboard shows canceled flights at Christchurch Airport in April, 2020, when New Zealand was in lockdown. Photo: AFP

Some have instead looked for support through shared experience. Earlier this year, a New Zealand woman in New York started the Facebook group “Grounded Kiwis,” where stranded New Zealanders can swap stories, tips, resources, or just vent.

The Grounded Kiwis network, of which the Facebook group is one element, is more than a support group, however. Several lawyers in Grounded Kiwis have harnessed their considerable legal savviness to put together a case, and on January 25, the High Court in New Zealand will hear a suit challenging the MIQ system.

“We’re making the case that the MIQ system is not fit for its purpose,” Brown said. “It’s not fair, it’s not doing its job, it’s discriminatory and it’s illegal. This is going to be a test case for New Zealand.”

Recently the New Zealand government announced that it will soon exempt most returnees from the much-maligned MIQ system. Come mid-January its vaccinated citizens and visa holders in Australia will finally be allowed to return and self-isolate at home for a week; in mid-February all Kiwis abroad will be welcomed home, with the country opening to other vaccinated visitors from the end of April. 

While many out of the country breathed a much-anticipated sigh of relief at this good news, some, like Cherie Brown, felt it was too little, too late.

“We have to learn from these experiences so that these kinds of things don’t happen in the future. We cannot be in the situation where tens of thousands of people – citizens – are treated in this manner. We feel abandoned. We feel like we don’t matter. And that’s wrong.” 

Chris Tharp is the author of The Worst Motorcycle in Laos and Dispatches from the Peninsula. His award-winning writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. He lives in Busan, South Korea, with his wife and a houseful of animals.