Dr Liz Gordon: Banning people from India: the right thing or racist policy?

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I was just writing about how the surge in Covid cases in India was causing a spike in cases arriving in New Zealand when Jacinda had a press conference and, abruptly, announced that no-one from India would be allowed in until the end of the month.

This is the first time that people from a particular country who are NZ residents have been blocked from returning.  In that sense, it is quite a big deal.  Immediately, some people called it a racist policy, targeting one group when others from high risk countries are still allowed to enter.

So the first question is whether people from India pose a particular risk at the present time.  There are two types of evidence that shows there is a particular risk. The first is that, between 2 and 6 of April, a five day period, over 30 travellers from India who arrived on the daily Emirates flight tested positive on Day 0/1.

That flight is nearly always full, and people from many other countries also board it at Dubai.  With a large number of Cases probably developing in the air, this risk also extends to others on the flight.  No other nationality has anything like the infection rate on arrival.

The second piece of evidence is about cases in the world.  I guess we are all looking to the end of the pandemic, but the reality is that cases are surging again internationally, and some are predicting that a new wave (the third? fourth?) is emerging.  Chief among the resurgence is India, which recorded a record number of cases yesterday, at 115,000, and climbing fast.

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There are other countries that are close behind.  Brazil, because the President, Bolsonara, has refused to put public health measures in place, is hitting new highs at around 90,000 cases per day.  While the government might be worried about the numbers in Brazil, I was not able to find any cases of people from that country arriving with Covid over the past ten days.  

Frankly, the flight schedule from Brazil to New Zealand would kill or cure you if you had Covid.  It takes up to 66 hours to get here by plane.

France is the other worrying country, with 80,000 cases today and a clear third wave. Again, I wasn’t able to find any evidence of people arriving here from France with a Covid infection.

Numbers are growing again in the US, with around 74,000 cases yesterday.  I found three cases from the US, one testing positive on day one, and the other two on days 12 and 14.

So the surge in people arriving here from India with Covid 19 is not some sort of racist fantasy, but a real thing with significant effects on our quarantine facilities.   The question is, was there anything that the government could do to stem the numbers except close the borders?

I wondered last week whether a number of these returnees were availing themselves of the burgeoning ‘fake Covid” certificate market. But yesterday the Health ministry noted that it was thought that most people who arrived positive caught the virus either travelling through India or en route.

En route for all means transit at Dubai airport onto an Emirates flight which travels daily to New Zealand from Dubai. Is Dubai airport a hotspot for cross-infection? I don’t know.  The number of infections recorded in the UAE is low, but that might be because they keep them all in transit.

Dubai airport does offer rapid Covid testing for a fee, which I suppose is an option.  But given quite a few who arrive here with Covid probably had it at Dubai, how would that play out?  Enforced, and probably costly, quarantine in Dubai? I am sure that travellers would prefer to wait it out in India than go down that route.

Things are likely to get worse than better in terms of Indian returnees to New Zealand in the next little while.  While the Covid soars again around the world, temporarily pausing travel into New Zealand for people where risk of infection is high is a prudent measure, not a racist one.

 

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Oops! just when the politicians were about to declare that we are getting on top of coronaviruses and could start thinking about returning to the gross aberrations they describe as ‘normal’:

    ‘Is the P1 coronavirus variant a major threat to the world?

    The P1 variant is causing devastation in Brazil, where an uncontrolled Covid pandemic is raging. P1, behind the terrible scenes of hospital overload in Manaus with patients’ relatives pleading for oxygen cylinders, is now the dominant form of coronavirus in many of Brazil’s cities and partly responsible for the high death toll. Other Latin American countries have closed their borders and restricted travel to and from Brazil but P1 is now in at least 15 countries in the Americas, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

    P1 is highly transmissible. Jesem Orellana, an epidemiologist at Fiocruz, the renowned Brazilian scientific research institution, said on 10 March that because of its epidemic, Brazil was “a threat to humanity”.

    As of 6 April, there were 356 cases of P1 in the US, spread across 25 jurisdictions, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The first case arrived in Minnesota in early January. There are far more cases of the UK variant – 16,275 – which like P1 spreads easily, but is very susceptible to vaccines. There were 32 cases of P1 in the UK as of 31 March.

    What do we know about the P1 variant?

    It is one of two coronavirus variants that have been detected in Brazil, or in people who have travelled from Brazil, called P1 and P2. The P1 variant has more changes – three mutations to the spike protein instead of one – and is causing the most concern.

    P1 was first detected in Japan, in people who had travelled from Manaus in Brazil. Investigations confirmed the variant in Manaus, the city on the Amazon that suffered an intense first wave of coronavirus that peaked in April last year. A survey of blood donors in October suggested that 76% of the population had antibodies, so were presumed at least temporarily immune. But in January, there was a resurgence among people who had previously recovered from Covid, suggesting that P1 is capable of infecting people who thought they had natural immunity.

    P2 is widespread in Brazil but has fewer worrying mutations.

    The UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) has designated P1 a “variant of concern”, as has the CDC in the US. Not only is it more transmissible – like the “Kent” variant B117 – but may also be capable of antigenic escape. In other words, the vaccines designed to stop coronavirus may not work so well against it.

    How is it different from other variants and will vaccines work?

    Nervtag says P1 “contains 17 unique amino acid changes, three deletions, four synonymous mutations and one 4nt insertion”. A variant is a virus with mutations, which sometimes have little effect. However, P1 has three that cause concern: K417T, E484K, and N501Y.

    E484K is the most worrying. It is in the so-called South African variant too, which has almost identical changes in its spike protein. There are also a few cases where B117, the Kent variant, known for its rapid spread, has gained the E484K mutation. This is the mutation thought to give the variants some ability to escape the vaccines.

    Lab tests have suggested so far that the major approved vaccines will work against P1, but with reduced efficacy. A study from Oxford University, published on 30 March in the peer reviewed journal Cell, looked at the antibody response in blood samples from people with P1 elicited by the AstraZeneca and also the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. They showed nearly a threefold reduction in neutralisation, so efficacy is reduced – but not as much as it is against the South African variant. The Chinese CoronaVac vaccine, which is being widely used in Brazil, also appears to have some efficacy, according to a separate, non-peer-reviewed study.

    What are the chances of P1 becoming widespread in Europe, the UK or US?

    It will depend on genomic sequencing of the samples of virus given by people taking Covid tests – and thorough follow-up contact tracing to find anyone else who may have picked up P1.

    The UK has become good at this. It is surge testing wherever cases of variants are found, whether P1 or B1351, which originated in South Africa. The UK does more genomic sequencing of viral samples than any other country so is in a good position to know what is going around. When six cases of P1 were picked up in February in the UK, a major search was launched to find one person who had not left contact details when he took his test. Forty people were involved over five days. Eventually the person came forward.

    Other countries are stepping up their genomic sequencing as the threat of the variants becomes clear. Even in highly vaccinated countries, P1 could pose problems. Controlling its spread will become ever more difficult as people resume foreign travel.’

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/01/brazil-covid-variant-p1-britain

  2. Possibly the only way to look at anything covid related anymore is to remain focussed on the science of the virus, which is proving to be more difficult as time goes by. Your argument suggests that, especially in it’s final sentence. Unfortunately, from there we all fall off into an obvious bigger problem about prudent responses based in science, that will be become apparent no sooner than 10 days from now.

  3. “Is Dubai airport a hotspot for cross-infection?”
    It could be.
    Take the case of someone who was pFizer vaccinated in India three or four days before departure (first jab), then hopped on the Delhi-Dubai flight with his wife with a relatively long layover before the Dubai-Auck flight.
    Quarantined in Auckland, he has tested positive while his wife is negative, and both are now serving their 14 days.
    It’s a nasty virus with a mind of its own.
    And as you say, coming from Brazil the chances of catching it en route if you haven’t already got it seem to be increasing.
    And there still seem to be inconsistencies at our border between sites. It’ll never be perfect but there are a few things we can improve on (such as the security person that hasn’t been vaccinated after weeks, and big differences between the way people are handled between Auckland’s quarantine sites)
    And if Dubai is a hotspot, it’s a major hub for people coming from anywhere.

    • Ekshly Ashley, the more I hear about the Ministry of Health and associated agencies involved in MIQ – including the Ministry for Everything, the more I wonder if you’ve been carrying the Ministry of Health’s load entirely on your own shoulders.
      There are some pretty bloody stupid failings going on that you could reasonably have expected one or two underlings to have dealt with.
      But there ya go – I guess that’s what you get paid the big bucks for. (I think they call it accountability, or some such shit that doesn’t seem to exist )
      While the Indian ban might be sensible based on the volume of specimens attempting to come from India in relation to MIQ capability – with what is proving to be various flaws in the cistern, on the flipside, hopefully you can understand the various concerns as outlined by Sandeep Singh of IndianWeekender and in an opinion piece on RNZ.
      I hope lil ‘ole Nuzull that punches above its weight doesn’t intend going to Delhi again in the near future grovelling for a FTA. I could have told them for free, the last junket was going to be a waste of time.
      In the meantime, IF things do turn a bit shittier as they might, the possibility that Dubai is in fact a hotspot can probably be spun as being in the Indian ‘issue’. Delhi ….. Mumbai …. they’re both the bloody same really. Not to dissimilar from the collective of Okker states

  4. Policy is a slippery term. Call it an interim measure. Justified? Too right. Discriminatory? In the basic sense of the term, yes. It needs to be given the circumstances, which range from very high infection rates currently in India to suggestions of poor departure testing to possibilities of in-transit infection. Racist? No. As you say Liz, a prudent measure. And probably sets a precedent of sort.

  5. Add it up, coronavirus from people coming from India 17. The rest of the world 5. So the answer is simple really.

  6. Yes what a ‘racist’ action (sarcasm) to halt travel for 2 weeks from India when in NZ most of the positive MIQ cases are from India! I’m sure the woke would prefer community spread going, and risk wiping out less than 1 million Maori and get it into our Pacific Island community instead. I totally endorse iwi closing off the roads to protect people when stupidity reigns and new arrivals are doing massive ticky tours around the country straight out of MIQ (and then in the Northland case, having Covid with the MIQ failing to detect it in quarantine).

    While Covid is raging all around the world, the strange thing is that Indian arrivals are the ones who seem to be increasingly positive for the virus. Something is wrong, when you get Covid and board a flight to NZ as 30 people from India (and only 3 from other countries) tested positive for Covid on Day 1. The incubation period is much longer that that!

    On social media, people keep asking, ‘why are NZ citizens still coming from India – it’s been over a year!’ Remember the MIQ places are supposed to be held for Kiwis to return home, not to keep the immigration Ponzi and their traffickers and money lenders afloat.

    For your own and other people’s safety woudn’t you want to sit tight during Covid and not travel? The government are practically endorsing people to start travelling again and spread Covid back to NZ.

    • Any pensioners have been told to get back to nz by 27th april or they will not get the pension, some have been trying since august with flights being cancelled and the miq site being booked out,, at least you can still book a spot now prior it was near impossible.. So staying put is not an option for some..

      • And here I was thinking Waiheke Island was the destination of choice for NZ pensioners, sarcasm.

        Who knew India had so many “NZ” pensioners living in India who need to get back to get their NZ pensions…. At least we know the motivation… although the amount of people coming from India testing positive for Covid suggests further motivation to come back to NZ – free health care.

        • Yes you hit the nail on the head. The young internationals who took up the opportunity of tertiary education in NZ that MAY lead them on to NZ citizenship and then onto their families members joining them meant many others qualified for NZ passports too. I know people whose parents got NZ passports but the parents elected to stay on in India …. until Covid hit.
          If New Zealanders’ opinions had been politically included in such an “educational” scheme it would never have eventuated. I wish we had the Swiss way of seeking public opinion via regular referendum on all things that will affect our way of life in NZ – good or bad. We can not trust our politicians and our State Service CEOs to be democratic the way it is.

  7. Is banning people from India or implying Indian people travelling to NZ are the real problem?

    “Health ministry noted that it was thought that most people who arrived positive caught the virus either travelling through India or en route”.
    En route for all means transit at Dubai airport onto an Emirates flight which travels daily to New Zealand from Dubai. Is Dubai airport a hotspot for cross-infection?”
    Dubai airport does offer rapid Covid testing for a fee!!

    Don’t believe the National party’s false profit, he who chases cars, C Bishop.

    • Yknow for a nation totally in love with the hijab / burka or what ever you’d think Dubai would have no problems enforcing mandatory gloves and masks while on stop overs.

  8. Personally i don’t have an issue with closing the border to certain countries, what worries me more is that it appears that our health system is now in such shambles that we admit we can not care about ours if the ycome from India.
    And rather then discuss the block from India, or using a convenient excuse ‘surging Covid’ we should discuss the following
    a. are we now better prepared for an outbreak then we were last year?
    b. we have bought a hundred ventilators last year, did the we also import/train the specialist nurses to manage these machines?
    c. why is our border personel not vaccinated and why does hipkins today state that ‘the government will work with the contractors that staff our plague hotels to get vaccinations sorted’ – did they not do so all the other days before?
    d. why is vaccination of the border staff and plague hotel staff only been made mandatory yesterday?

    In the meantime there are a 690 Kiwis stuck in india, who may or may not get their flights refunded, who may or may not survive the wait to another MIQ spot and so on and so far.
    And yes, if you sort out one country when the UK variant is surging everywhere it might come across as half baked, half arsed at best, somewhat racist as worst.
    But then this government need all of the caucus to replace a lightbulb.

    • Apparently the ‘trust’ model does not work with MIQ places just like it does not seem to work for council inspections with people booking out the system. Perhaps time for the politicians to work out that trust was something that NZ had before they turned to disastrous neoliberal policy that means we can no longer build a house easily or even a proper MIQ booking system, let alone work out that it will be misused by people and whether MIQ staff will be vaccinated or not.

    • Would you rather have an explosion of covid at the border or not ? that’s the real question here. Passengers from India have in many cases to travel across India to get to their airport so much more risk for infection.The other questions also are would you really want to test our health system in such a way when there is no need. As for border workers unfortunately or fortunately they do have a choice as of this week I would say but in light of these recent developments not for much longer. If you read the information about travelers coming to NZ the vast majority are Indians with the highest number of infections. Jacinda Arden has kept the borders open for returning New Zealanders so there must be worrying trends coming out of India for her to do this drastic step for 2 weeks.

  9. If this government is going to base drastic authoritarian measures on every new nucleic variation of disease then this is going to go on forever. Last year’s seasonal epidemic is long gone and it is doubtful vaccinations will provide protection for that specific coronavirus (which populations have probably already established an immune response to) let alone for new species.

  10. We often have restrictions put upon us when we want to use a public road we have a ‘right’ to use when an accident has closed the road (temporarily). Closing the Indian border is similar. The corruption in India makes me question that truth of their documentation.

  11. Excellent Post @ Dr LG.
    I have a more, shall we say, agricultural approach.
    Shut the fucking borders TO EVERYONE INCOMING! You want to leave? Great! Bon voyage.
    c-19 is far from being subdued/controlled, that should be clear to us by now. Allowing infected human organisms to knowingly infect non infected human organisms despite good and effective quarantine opportunities here while being mindful of just how versatile, unpredictable and deadly c-19 is, is literally murder, I’d a thought.
    Keep off airplanes! Keep away from each other! Grow the fuck up! Show some intelligent, responsible maturity for Gods sake? Are we all idiotic North Americans sucking on a narcissistic orange tyrant? Are we all so desperate to fly for miles in a metal tube that doubles as a petri dish for viruses just to go “Ooo…Ahhh…!” at a view? Heard of picture books? The foreign bankster owned and manipulated Kiwi tourism ‘industry’ won’t care one small flying mallard duck who gets sick or dies so long as the money comes in.
    Close. Our. Borders.
    You? Yes you? You, who want to come here and put us at risk unnecessarily? Fuck off ! Show some responsibility for yourselves and some respect for us and if you think it’s a race/colour/creed/religion thing then you’re not understanding the gravity of the dire situation we’re all faced with. In short. Give us a fucking break man.
    I’ve travelled well though heaving populations of people of all sorts of colours and beliefs and most of those people live in very close quarters, must must shop daily, they have multiple generations living together, working together and dying naturally along side each other. The risks of transmission of a virus, therefore, are beyond great and people living in such conditions are at enormous risk. Is that racist? I suppose it might be seen to be so but it’s not a sentiment born of my heart or mind. It’s simply the maths of the matter.
    People in dense concentrations in close proximity to each other equals a virus fun park. Ask any school teacher?
    The only way to stop c-19 from getting a foot hold in AO/NZ is by keeping non essential travellers out. And no. A boat race was NOT essential to us or our country. It would have lined the pockets of the already rich but for the rest of us all we get is anxiety. Instead, we should take the America’s Cup and use that as an example of how easy it is to manipulate us in to behaving in a manner that’s not in our best fucking interests. Aye Boys.
    Speaking of racists?
    Hobsons Pledge? Heard of…?
    If any piece of logical fallacy gibberish giving good people a bad name exists I don’t want to read it. I can smell greasy lawyer oils all over it.
    To be frank. Hobsons Pledge requires closer inspection.
    https://www.hobsonspledge.nz/
    Those supporting Hobson’s Pledge Trust are New Zealanders who want all citizens to prosper and succeed. We believe that:
    • All New Zealanders should be equal before the law, irrespective of when they or their ancestors arrived in New Zealand;
    • The Treaty of Waitangi is not in any meaningful sense New Zealand’s constitution;
    • The Treaty did, however, establish three important points, namely that, in signing the Treaty, chiefs ceded sovereignty to the Crown; that in turn the Crown would protect the property rights of all New Zealanders; and that “nga tangata maori katoa o Nu Tirani” (the ordinary people of New Zealand) would have the same rights and duties of citizenship as the people of England;
    • The Treaty of Waitangi did not create a “partnership” between Maori and the Crown;
    • The Treaty of Waitangi did not establish any “principles” and all references to such “principles” should be removed from legislation;
    • There is no longer any need for special Maori representation in government, whether it be Maori electorates in Parliament, Independent Maori Statutory Board in Auckland, or racially based representation in other governance bodies;
    • All New Zealanders have an equal interest in the quality of fresh water and in the protection of the environment;
    • There is no longer any need for the Waitangi Tribunal;
    • Wherever it can be reasonably established that the Crown unlawfully confiscated property from any individual or group, compensation should be paid, provided however that any such compensation should be “full and final”;
    • Policy measures intended to support those who need special assistance from government should be based on need, and not on ethnicity.

  12. Almost two-thirds of the Covid-19 cases detected in managed isolation over the last 30 days have come from India.
    Figures from the Ministry of Health show that of the 137 cases in managed isolation the last 30 days, 87 have come from India.
    https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/440130/covid-19-two-thirds-of-border-cases-in-last-month-from-india

    +Since January, almost everyone coming to New Zealand has been required to have a negative pre-departure test.+

    But 30 people originated from India to NZ with the negative pre-departure test from India somehow get Covid on Day 1 in NZ???? And NZ’s best and brightest somehow think it’s transit related on Day 1? Pandemic Corruption is now a racist term for the woke.

    Not to mention, why are 65% of all MIQ NZ arrivals overall are originating from India in the first place and why nobody else can get into NZ easily with all the MIQ places not only being booked up, but then lengthened for the positive Covid results from Indian related travellers.

    Someone was telling me that an Indian national went through Fiji to get to NZ, before testing positive for Covid in Fiji and then making everyone else on the plane go into quarantine.

    So with that going on, unsurprisingly expect an major fuck up pandemic from the OZ border as there are so many loop holes from other nationals who have somehow got NZ residency, and have zero morals flying with Covid, rushing to get free NZ care here or gaming the system because OZ has closed it’s borders and a loophole allows them to transit through NZ without OZ knowing to other potentially Covid risk countries and then go back to OZ via NZ. It’s fucked!

  13. The cynic in me thinks Covid is the only area our once promising Prime Minister has any influence over.

    I don’t think the decision is wrong but its become obvious, a relatively nothing administrative move has become bigger than Ben Hur because as a PM, its all she’s got. Sad all round really.

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