When my mother told me in March that I should return home from London to New Zealand, I scoffed. That would be premature, I said. My job is secure. A few weeks later, the founder-CEO of the travel media start-up I worked for was tearfully telling us via video call that he had to make some redundancies.
Now, 110 days since my office was told to work from home indefinitely and my lockdown period began, I am quarantined in a hotel in Rotorua, my nose still tingling after a Covid-19 test a couple of hours ago.
I have spent the last few months wishing the days away. I was counting down the days of the brutal redundancy process that followed that video call, and counting down the days until my lockdown-flouting housemate moved out. Now I count down my days in quarantine, as enforced by the New Zealand government for all international arrivals. Today is day 11 of 14.
As I watched the bell curve of New Zealand’s coronavirus cases go in the opposite direction to the UK’s, someone asked if I was proud of my country’s response to the pandemic. It wasn’t pride I felt, but more a relief that I didn’t have to worry about the health of my loved ones on top of everything else. I was desperate to be back home.
When I flew into Auckland I exhaled at the sight of the familiar skyline, knowing that in a few hours I’d be able to put the previous months’ stress behind me. But when we were told we were being taken to Rotorua, a tourist hotspot famous for its geothermal activity and the rotten egg stench that goes with it, I thought it was a joke. Without the chance to get water, food or go to the bathroom, we were taken on a four-hour bus ride through the night.
The government has since apologised for the lack of communication, and are now notifying passengers of their quarantine destination when they check into their flights, but the debate about the quarantine system and who should pay for it continues. Reading comments on Facebook, it seems Jacinda Ardern’s pre-lockdown message of “Be kind” has been forgotten.
On day six of quarantine, I woke up to an email from a stranger after my name was published in a Norwegian tabloid. “You are lucky you’ve been allowed to enter our country which we all have worked hard to keep virus free,” Becks, who apparently can read Norwegian, wrote. “You didn’t come back before lockdown we are paying your accommodation to keep your bugs away from us [sic].”
Everyone I’ve spoken to has been forced to return due to hardship. Many, like me, were made redundant. Some are returning to care for family, one had to sell everything they owned to pay for a flight home, and another had to close their business.
Every day we do laps of the enclosed carpark (275 steps per lap; 37 laps to hit 10,000 steps), somehow all going in the same anti-clockwise direction without ever having discussed it. We had Friday night drinks in the carpark, a much-needed release after a week of being told we’re not welcome in our own country, while security made sure we all stayed two metres apart, and joined in on our jokes.
Us “quarantinis” stay connected via a Facebook group, offering to add extra items to supermarket orders, sharing news articles, and the local MP checks in on us every few days. We’re “iso whānau” (family) now, united by this surreal experience, and brought closer together as many others turned their backs.
On day seven, we received a letter from the local iwi (tribe) that made me cry over my breakfast. “We thank you for your support in isolation to further protect our precious country,” it said. “He waka eke noa, we are all in this together.”
As my two-week stay comes to an end, I can say that the nurses, security, military and hotel staff have all been overwhelmingly kind (shout out to Eagle, who swooped in and saved the day when I received that nasty email), and the lake views out of my window are stunning. Having your freedoms stripped away takes a toll but we are more than willing to do it to keep everyone safe. What’s two more weeks anyway?
I look forward to what awaits on the other side: hugs, dining at restaurants, and sweaty dance floors Us returnees who have been forced to leave our previous lives behind are not asking for a red carpet on arrival, but a welcome mat would be nice.