OPINION: It’s hard to escape the feeling that much of the sharpness about Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) is driven by the feelings of a segment of the population who view MIQ as a punishment for living or being abroad recently a New Zealander made that you still know people abroad.
Politicians and commentators have received a lot of resonance and very little resistance, inclining to the line that we overseas New Zealanders should look less like our larger families and more as reckless vacationers who did something wrong.
“But what is really interesting from those who have been looking for vouchers today is the most popular demand [was] about the vouchers that are closest to Christmas and the New Year, ”said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday and seems happy to suggest that MIQ bookers are just looking for a vacation.
Ardern pondered how the new booking system for the managed isolation lobby was going. With Kentucky Fried Chicken so close, most Australians were already licking their fingers and managing isolation facilities and the people who could use them were a little lower on their agendas.
* Covid-19: Trans-Tasman bubble “just no visitor,” says Ardern
* Jacinda Ardern: Pregnant kiwi stranded in Sydney is likely to be able to fly
* Covid-19: Officials urge returnees to cancel MIQ ghost bookings so others can come home
* Covid-19: MIQ checks to combat travelers who book overlapping slots
Hours before the announcement that Auckland would postpone the alert levels, 26,000 New Zealanders were engaged in an online battle to secure just 3,000 spots in the MIQ. The real number wanting to get in is likely much larger.
The MIQ lobby has proven to be a little fairer than just getting script kiddies to decide who comes into the country, but the problems are still there because the supply is pretty much frozen.
A lockdown-induced freezing of MIQ bookings made these problems even worse.
The booking stop is a change in how we dealt with this situation last time. Once a level 4 lockdown was a reason to let more people into the country and even trust them to isolate themselves at home.
Early last year we saw the lockdown as a low risk way to get more people through the door while flights were still available. The thought was that even if someone breaks the isolation at home, the chances of the virus going very far are minimal since everyone is locked up.
This time, the lockdown was cited as the reason for suspending bookings, although you could argue that the potential consequences of an MIQ leak are less severe when the entire population is in quarantine.
Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins announces a lifting of the MIQ booking break and a new system for reserving a room.
Managed isolation caused problems. Many problems. There are problems for our exporters because they have not been able to maintain relationships. Our health system is under pressure from not getting the doctors and other professionals we normally expect and migrant families have been divided with no realistic hope of reunification.
Then there was the almost hourly stream of stories of New Zealanders desperate to go home.
Even government agencies struggled to secure managed isolation slots, with some enforcing exceptions or taking extreme measures to book them.
Perhaps the deeper truth is that the knee-jerk reaction to the suspension of managed isolation bookings is evidence that MIQ has become a political football in and of itself.
Delta has changed the calculations on portability, but the virus has also changed us and our attitudes towards returning New Zealanders, foreigners, or Kiwis with international connections.
There is no shortage of possible solutions for this MIQ sump. We were on our way at the beginning of the pandemic. The thought was that Covid-19 could shut down some traditional “nibbles” of the economy like tourism, immigration, and travel, but there would be others that could go on if we could modify MIQ a little.
We saw a future where we could keep industries like international education, long-term tourism, and film production going. Students paying fees could isolate themselves, rich long-term tourists could take us further up the tourism value chain and even choose to stay and invest in the economy. Film crews have to stay in the country for long periods of time, so they certainly wouldn’t break a sweat if they had to isolate themselves for two weeks.
The potential of this comparative advantage soon faded as the narrative turned to belief that any increase or change in the managed isolation system poses a threat to our Covid response.
While people have been locked in hotel rooms with inadequate ventilation, this appears to have been the case. But when MIQ became a political football, any action became inedible, including building safe special MIQ facilities.
Which brings us to a point where we’ve gotten to lately, where the easiest way to show that you’re doing something is to shut out those who have been trying to get into the country for months.
It’s a cycle that we seem to have to repeat unless we can convince a lot more people that they don’t have to be ashamed of being a New Zealander overseas.