April 22: Day 28 of living in lock-down…
An Open Letter to Prime Minister Ardern
Kia ora Ms Ardern,
Firstly, let’s set one thing pretty well straight before launching into the point of this letter to you. You, your government colleagues, and hard working civil servants have done an amazing job in navigating us through this crisis. History will remember the strong but compassionate leadership our country has had the great fortune to have.
We could just as well have had the likes of Bolsonaro, Orbán, or Trump leading us.
You have led us through ‘Hurricane Covid19’ nearly flawlessly, considering humanity hasn’t experienced an event like this since the 1918 Influenza pandemic. Nearly flawlessly. There have been ‘stumbles’ along the way. The problem of issuing PPEs is an irritant that refuses to go away.
But perhaps the ‘stumble’ that may yet be the worst is the exemption given to Air New Zealand not to isolate flight crew after they have completed an overseas assignment.
This first came to my attention on 21 April on RNZ’s Checkpoint. The story, in brief;
The airline’s crews who fly internationally continue to be exempt from the strict 14-day quarantine rules for people returning to New Zealand from overseas – with the exception of Los Angeles flights.
On Monday the airline confirmed crew members had been forced to self-isolate after some staff allegedly disregarded physical distancing rules during a layover in Vancouver.
Documents obtained by Checkpoint show increasing unease and fear among flight crew staff about the exemption from isolation or quarantine, and the risk it poses to colleagues and the public.
Air New Zealand is currently operating 16 return international services a week. At the end of May it plans to add three return services a week to Shanghai to that schedule.
To say that I was utterly gobsmacked would be an understatement. I listened to the unfolding story with a growing horror; a rising anger; and a deep disappointment.
Let me explain. For the last four weeks we have been in Level 4 lock-down. This has separated friends and families. Closed non-essential businesses. Curtailed recreational and sporting activities. Borrowed billions to keep our economy afloat and society intact. And thousands have lost their jobs.
The vast majority of New Zealanders heeded your call to stick to our “bubbles”.
You called on us;
“New Zealand, be calm, be kind, stay at home.
We can break the chain.”
You minded us time and again;
“Stay home, save lives.”
And you challenged us;
“… you may not be at work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a job. Your job is to save lives, and you can do that by staying home, and breaking the chain.”
And the people you cheerfully referred to as “our team of five million” responded;
“Hell yeah, let’s do this!”
And we did. For the most part, people responded and made the sacrifices we knew in our hearts and minds were necessary to save lives.
But it was a battle that was not without many casualities. So many people found themselves suddenly unemployed. Some lost the businesses they had worked long hours to establish. And fourteen of our fellow New Zealanders lost their lives.
We retreated to our homes, venturing out only for food and exercise. Some of us – like myself – carried on working as we were as essential service. Which often meant our “bubble” became necessarily inflated to encompass our colleagues and those we cared for. Some of us were not successful in dodging the viral ‘bullet‘.
But we carried on, because, well, it had to be done.
As the lock-down progressed, there were calls to loosen the restrictions and allow more exemptions. Golfing greens (which was eventually allowed); surfing; hunting; butchers… There was quite a list. Aided and abetted by yammering voices from the National and ACT parties.
Though as any sensible person will tell you, the more businesses and recreational activities are open, the more ‘porous’ the lock-down becomes until it is a lock-down in name only. Cue covid19 to become rampant through the entire country.
Which was something wiser heads in our communities understood with crystal clarity;
“I don’t want the Muslim community to look like [they’re] insensitive, inconsiderate over the Covid-19 issue – that they’re just worried about the meat situation.
That is a picture I don’t want New Zealand to get because there there are people in the Muslim community who are actually worried about saving people’s lives in this state of emergency.
We should go with the available options because there are many people who are missing out on what they like to have. It’s not only the Muslim community who are missing out on halal meat, there are other communities missing out on what they want.” – Usman Afzali, 31
Mr Afzali was opposing calls for specialised Halal butchers to be given an exemption to the lock-down. Mr Afzali understood the consequences of permitting endless exemptions. He knew the price that would be demanded by the virus – and it would be a cost met by lives lost.
And I understand that. I really do. I’ve even supported my colleagues in a work situation where management who were not part of our facility’s “bubble” were point-blank denied entry. We have vulnerable clients and non-essential people were barred – no exemptions.
My ‘bubble’ consists of my flatmate; four colleagues (down from six) in our facility, plus our clients. (My flatmate’s ‘bubble’ is tiny, as she hardly knows anyone in the Greater Wellington Region.) My partner, who has her own house, is not part of my ‘bubble’. For four weeks we have not seen each other, except through the ‘Star Trekkian‘ marvel of ‘Zoom‘ technology.
We have taken your call to keep to our “bubbles” with utmost seriousness and urgency. We have not deviated. We have been staunch.
So after reading all that, you can understand, Ms Ardern, how absolutely gutted I felt when I read that Air New Zealand flight crews were returning to our country; disembarking from their aircraft; and… entering our community.
No fourteen week quarantine. Nothing.
When challenged by RNZ, Air New Zealand responded;
“This is expert medical advice for all airlines to follow in New Zealand. If there are general concerns or questions about this advice then that is a matter for the Ministry of Health as they have established these standards.”
So the entire country is asked to go into stringent lock-down and when asked a legitimate question why Air New Zealand flight crews are exempt, we are given that corporate gobbledegook-speak?!
Did anyone send a copy of that particular memo from Air New Zealand to the virus?
An un-named (for damned good reason) Air New Zealand employee reminded us;
“On 19 March, NZ5 arrived at Auckland from LAX on which three passengers tested positive for Covid-19, at least two crew later tested positive. A crew member from that flight, before testing positive, went down to Bluff to attend a wedding, and now we all know about the ‘Bluff cluster’.”
A person died from that ‘cluster’: the groom’s father.
The following day from that initial RNZ story, Air New Zealand disclosed that thirty employees have tested positive for covid19.
And yet you still allow Air New Zealand to be given an exemption?
Tangata whenua going into the bush to shoot food for their whanau is considered a risk to transmission of covid19 – and it’s banned?
Whilst flight crews returning from Los Angeles, Shanghai, and god knows where from – are not exempt?!
Ms Ardern, I struggle to understand the logic to this, I really do. I’ve looked at it from every possible angle and all I can come up with is that Air New Zealand is part-owned by the government, with a massive $900 million bail-out loan extended to the company by Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
I really hope it’s not about saving an asset that the State has high stakes in. I really do. That would seem to be beneath your dignity to be party to such a venal deal.
So my question to you should be fairly obvious by now – or rather, two questions;
(1) Why: does Air New Zealand have the privilege of enjoying an exemption to a fourteen day quarantine when – out of all the businesses in this country – it is the riskiest one that could re-introduce covid19 to our shores? What makes Air New Zealand safer than someone going out shooting in the back-blocks?
(2) Why: have I bothered with my ‘bubble’; securing the facility where I work with vulnerable people; and foregone seeing my partner for nearly an entire month – when Air New Zealand flight crew could, at this very moment, be infected and spreading their contagion in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch?! Why have I bothered?
I really, really hope your reconsider the justifications you offered at your 1pm ‘presser’ today (22 April). I really do.
Because if we managed to eliminate covid19 from our shores, only to have it reappear with new infections brought in by Air New Zealand flight crew – then it’s all been for nothing. Our efforts have been undermined because – and this is critical – no matter how many times we eliminate the virus, it will be reintroduced by flight crews who remain exempt for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
Singapore should be a clear lesson to us that this virus can return if we allow it even the smallest opportunity;
Fears have resurfaced about the ability of coronavirus to surge again after lockdowns are eased, as Singapore confirmed a sharp rise in new infections.
One of the worst-hit countries when the virus first spread from China in January, Singapore’s strict surveillance and quarantine regime helped slow the outbreak, but recent rises in locally transmitted cases have raised fresh concerns. Singapore reported 142 new infections on Wednesday.
When we move to Alert Level 3 I will be seeing my partner again. I’m even tempted to go to the beach, if we’re lucky to have any fine days left.
I’ve done my bit. God knows I have.
But this is beyond me.
Please reconsider Air New Zealand’s exemption. It’s not worth it.
Current covid19 cases: 1,451
Cases in ICU: 2 (0 critical)
Number of deaths: 14
Change.org: Allow Responsible Surfing in New Zealand
Rural News: Pork farmers want butchers to start trading
The Independent: Is Sweden having second thoughts on lockdown?
Elemental: Hold the Line
Previous related blogposts
Acknowledgement: Rod Emmerson
This blogpost will be re-published on “Frankly Speaking“. Reader’s comments may be left here (The Daily Blog) or there (Frankly Speaking).
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