Virus measures stop legal return of thousands to New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand

When Silvia Dancose’s daughter called in distress from Canada in August, Dancose flew over right away to comfort her.

But now, after weeks of trying, she has no idea when she’ll be allowed to return home to New Zealand.

This week, Dancose found herself waiting in vain behind 17,000 others in an online queue. New Zealanders desperate to return to their home country are forced each week or so to enter a lottery for coveted beds in quarantine hotels.

As part of its effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, New Zealand requires all returning citizens and residents — whether vaccinated or not — to spend 14 days isolating in a hotel run by the military.

Because demand is far outstripping supply, New Zealanders are being locked out indefinitely, despite the right of return enshrined in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements and in international law.

The quarantine system remains in place despite New Zealand’s government acknowledging this week that it can no longer wipe out the virus.

The tight border controls, along with strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing, ensured New Zealand eliminated each outbreak of the virus for the first 18 months of the pandemic.

For most of that time, people were able to live without any restrictions, going to work and filling sports stadiums. Only 28 people in the country with a population of 5 million have died from COVID-19.

But an outbreak of the more transmissible delta variant in August has proved impossible to extinguish, especially after spreading through marginalized groups, including homeless people and gang members.

Yet the strict border measures remain. For many trying to come home, it has been particularly galling that sports stars, politicians and other selected high-flyers glide through the system with guaranteed spots upon their return.

For one New Zealander, it took filing a lawsuit before she could get home. Bergen Graham unexpectedly found out she was pregnant in March while living in El Salvador. Doctors told Graham her pregnancy was considered high-risk because of her blood type.—AP

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