WELLINGTON – 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. She filed six applications for an emergency spot in quarantine, but was denied each time.
As Graham and her husband tried to get back, they flew to Los Angeles, where they lined up alongside undocumented immigrants at community clinics to get medical care.
They worried they would get deported from the U.S. when their visa waiver entitlement expired, or that the delays would disqualify them from traveling home because the pregnancy would get too far advanced. They feared they would get stuck with a six-figure medical bill if they had the baby in the U.S.
“It was inhumane. Everyone’s situation changes, and everyone has the right to come home,” Graham said. “I felt like that right had been taken away. It was the weirdest feeling.”
A London-based group called Grounded Kiwis helped her file legal action in New Zealand asking for a judicial review of her case. Within 48 hours, the government made a U-turn and last month offered her an emergency spot in quarantine.
Graham, whose baby is due in mid-November, said she's incredibly relieved to be back home in Auckland, but remains angry at what she endured.
One of the founders of Grounded Kiwis is Alexandra Birt, a 29-year-old New Zealand lawyer based in London, who became concerned that people's rights were being breached.
Birt found time for research when she caught COVID-19 herself in July and took sick leave from work. She said New Zealand's quarantine system is broken and needs to change.
Many New Zealanders stranded abroad have also become disheartened by the attitude of those back home, Birt said, some of whom seem to have little sympathy for their plight and are content for the borders to remain tightly sealed.
“People are feeling totally abandoned both by the government and the New Zealand public," Birt said.
New Zealand's government says the quarantine system will be vital in its virus response for the foreseeable future.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins recently announced plans to add an extra quarantine hotel and begin a small trial that would allow some fully vaccinated people to isolate at home.
“We want to assure Kiwis overseas that we are doing everything we can to facilitate their safe return," he said.
But the system may have already caused a symbolic loss. Amazon Studios filmed one season of a television production inspired by “The Lord of the Rings" in New Zealand, which has a long association with the books of J.R.R. Tolkien.
However, Amazon said it decided to film the second season in Britain to expand its production footprint there. Many people locally, however, have pointed to the problems Amazon was having in getting its actors and crew in and out of New Zealand.
For Dancose, the waiting to return home continues. When her 23-year-old daughter, who is studying in Montreal and has a history of depression, reached out to her in August, Dancose had just accepted a new job. But she knew she needed to be by her daughter’s side.
“When you are in New Zealand, the narrative is, don’t go, despite whatever reasons you may have,” Dancose said. “I have no regrets, though.”
Dancose has been logging on to a virtual waiting room, where a few thousand places for returnees open up every week or two, often for slots months in the future.
People are assigned a place randomly, and Dancose was about 15,000th in the queue, then 24,000th and another time 17,000th. She hasn't come close to getting a slot.
For now, she is couch-surfing in Montreal. A Canadian by birth and a New Zealand permanent resident, Dancose has connections in both countries.
Dancose said her daughter is doing much better. She said her new employer has allowed her to work remotely for now, even though she’s supposed to be interacting with people as part of her new job.
Dancose said she was double vaccinated in New Zealand before she left, and remains dismayed that despite doing everything right, she's still not allowed to return home.