Families torn apart by New Zealand’s decision, in the wake of Omicron, to block all except its citizens flying directly here from South Africa are feeling helpless as Covid throws yet another barrier in their efforts to reunite.
The lesser rights afforded to Kiwi residents every time a new variant of concern crops up has left many feeling devalued, their futures here insecure.
Fayroza and Mohammed Davids and their youngest daughter, Hanaa, moved to Taranaki in early 2019.
Her husband fills an essential role as an automotive mechanic. Their two older children, Laaiqah and Daanyall, were left behind while their residency application was processed, as it would have been too costly for them to study as international students.
But delays in processing their residency, followed by Covid, has seen them separated for two long years. Hanaa often telling her parents that she now she feels like an only child.
Then in July, the older Davids children’s residency came through; they spent the next few months fighting for an MIQ spot, finally securing a slot for December 18. “We both cried Hannah and I,” Fayroza says. “It was just such a relief we finally got some spots, we could see some hope for the future, then this new variant happened.”
As residents her children can no longer fly directly here. South Africa now one of 10 countries on New Zealand’s “Very High Risk” category, after the emergence of Omicron. Only citizens are entitled to fly directly here, without spending quarantine in a lesser risk country for 14 days.
“That’s a bit heart-breaking, because we are supposed to be part of the team of five million,” Fayroza says. “When it gets said borders are shut except for citizens, what’s really the difference between residents and citizens?”
Finance Minister Grant Robertson, at Friday afternoon’s Covid-19 media update, says it was about managing the risk by reducing numbers. “It’s the method of being able to control the volume of travel, and fulfilling our legal obligations.”
Shane Welsh, is another South African migrant, living here in Auckland. He hasn’t seen his wife, Melanie Taylor, for almost three years. After finally securing her New Zealand residency, and a slot in MIQ, they were excited about reuniting as a family this month – just in time for her stepson’s 16th birthday.
“It’s like walking the green mile… every week is something new, one step forward, two steps back,” she says. “The hardest thing is being away from family for so long. I don’t have a home right now, I’m homeless.”
As an essential worker Shane feels it’s not fair they are being treated differently to citizens. “We offered to come here. They allowed us to come in here. Don’t treat the immigrants differently.”
Without any further clarity, he says some big decisions might need to be made about his family’s future here. “The ideal wasn’t for [my family] to be apart like this. Some big decisions need to be made; do I stay? Or do I go?”
Pooja Sundar is an immigration lawyer with D&S Law. She’s calling on the Government to ensure it doesn’t leave South Africa languishing on the list for months – like it did with the likes of India, after the emergence of Delta. It’s only just had its risk downgraded this month – despite health experts agreeing the risk was no longer so high in the middle of the year.
“We understand there is a public health risk,” she says. “But it’s about managing that, and making sure that we are doing everything we possibly can so that [families] are not separated any longer than they need be.”
Ten countries in total are on New Zealand’s “Very High Risk” list, nine of these – southern African nations - listed after Omicron was declared a variant of concern last week. Six of them yet to report any cases of the new strain of the virus.
All around the world countries acted similarly to New Zealand in the wake of the new variant, many shutting their borders to South Africa, where it was first detected, as well as a number of neighbouring nations.
But two years into the pandemic health experts and politicians in South Africa have been fiercely critical of the travel restrictions saying there must be a better way. Dr Sikhulili Moyo is a virologist at the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership who was behind the discovery of the new variant.
“By now we should be talking about how do we handle travel…we should work together that’s my belief,” he says. “If you close travel, that’s how we get medicine right? That’s how we are expecting vaccines to flow. That’s how trade flows. So you are really shutting down economies.”
He says countries shouldn’t be blacklisted if they draw attention to a new variant. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed these sentiments at a recent media conference.
“While we respect the right of every country to take measures to protect their people, the sustained global cooperation we need, to overcome the pandemic, necessitates that we are led by science, and not by emotion, and not by political considerations.”
It’s understood the New Zealand Government will be reviewing its border restrictions on Monday.
Since last week the number of cases linked to the new variant have grown. It’s been picked up in six other African nations – with concerns low testing across the continent is hiding its true spread. Europe is by far the continent reporting the widest spread of the new strain – 17 individual nations have cases.
Norway now likely to have the biggest cluster outside of South Africa, after a work Christmas party turned into a super-spreader event. Cases have also been found in three Middle Eastern countries and a handful of Asian nations. Cases also cropping up in Canada, the US, Mexico, and Brazil. In total nearly forty countries have cases of Omicron – just over a week after it was first reported. There are no reported deaths from it so far.