Community leaders have questioned the New Zealand government’s decision to temporarily close the border to people travelling from India, and say they fear the move could prompt racism and stigma.
“The question of ‘Why India?’ must be asked, and a clear answer should be given,” said Sunil Kaushal, president of the Waitakere Indian Association. He asked why the ruling applied only to India, when other nations including the United States, Brazil, France and the UK had also experienced soaring infection rates, especially when compared per-capita.
“We don’t feel like a part of the ‘team of 5 million’ when Indians are singled out like this,” he said.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, on Thursday announced that New Zealand would temporarily suspend entry for all travellers from India, including its own citizens, for two weeks from 11 April after recording a high number of positive Covid-19 cases from the country arriving at the border.
On Thursday, New Zealand also announced that another border worker had been infected with Covid-19. There was no indication so far that his infection was linked to a case from India. While the vast majority of New Zealand’s frontline border workers have had at least one dose of vaccine, this worker had not.
Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins told The AM show that 100% of Defence Force border workers had been vaccinated, and that police and aviation security staff were at around 95%. But he said contracted staff at managed isolation facilities – such as Thursday’s worker, who was a security guard – were taking longer. “That’s a process that takes a little bit of time,” he said.
New Zealand has recorded 23 new positive coronavirus cases at its border facilities as of Thursday, of which 17 were from India. India is battling a huge wave of coronavirus infections, even as it carries out record numbers of vaccinations. This week it reported 115,000 fresh infections in 24 hours, the highest single-day total anywhere in the world.
Ardern said on Friday that more than 60 passengers coming into the country from India had tested positive over the past two weeks. “If that number of people from any country were coming in with Covid that would give us cause to pause and look at mitigation to reduce that risk, so this is not country-specific, this is about the cases we are seeing currently from that region,” she said.
This is the first time New Zealand has closed the border to returning citizens from any nation during the pandemic.
“It’s quite shocking, to be honest,” said Mandeep Bela, of the Indian Workers Association. “Since Covid started, we were told that New Zealand cannot shut its borders to its citizens, regardless of where they are, how many cases there are – they cannot stop them coming back to the country.” He said the move means New Zealand citizens in India had been “left stateless”.
Bela also raised concerns that the singling out of India could prompt a racist backlash or stigmatise New Zealanders of Indian descent. “A lot of people have that fear that they will be targeted,” Bela said.
Kaushal shared those concerns, and said he had already observed racist comments being made. “It’s already started – look at the social media streams, listen to talkback radio,” he said. “We are Kiwis. Will we always be treated as second-class citizens?”
Kaushal also noted the high human cost for hundreds of New Zealanders who could be stranded in India. “People are not going to India right now for a holiday,” he said. “I myself lost my dad on the first day of lockdown last year. I haven’t been able to return for his one-year memorial.” He said another friend had travelled to India to perform last rites for her mother – now it was unclear when she would be able to return.
“I think no one will disagree that we need to protect our borders and we are one of the luckiest countries in the world,” he said, but added that the focus should be on continued strengthening of the Managed Isolation and Quarantine [MIQ] system, or improving pre-departure measures.
Green party MP Golriz Ghahraman tweeted that she was “calling out” the ruling as ethnic communities spokesperson.
“Weird we didn’t go with an all out ban as an option for US or UK entries, given their harrowing rates on Covid. Our ethnic communities of South Asian origin need to know race isn’t a factor in our Covid risk management.”
“I’m really … uncomfortable with this travel ban,” Dr Jin Russell, a PhD candidate in epidemiology, wrote on Twitter. “These are New Zealanders, trying to get home. They deserve access to healthcare here too, and are at high risk of contracting covid. If our MIQ and airport procedures and vaccination rates are up to scratch, we could contain this?”
Others questioned the legal status of the suspension, given New Zealand’s bill of rights guarantees freedom of movement, including the right of its citizens to enter the country.
“New Zealanders have the right to come back to New Zealand,” the NZ Council for Civil Liberties said. “While we recognise that the practicalities of managing an infectious disease can justify a limitation of this right, we also question whether the government has put in enough effort to avoid having to take this step.”
They also questioned the singling out of India. “We’re sure that we’re not the only ones who feel uncomfortable about these measures being applied differently depending on where the people are coming from.”
Public law expert Andrew Geddis, in analysis for The Spinoff, said that while the measures did restrict New Zealanders’ rights, ministers did have leeway to do so – but “only if it is a ‘demonstrably justified’ limit on people’s rights”.
“The fact the government is now prepared to face the potential emotional backlash involved in turning citizens away from the country’s border suggests to me that matters may really be turning pretty dire, and so a temporary removal of the right to enter is justified,” he said.