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New Zealand's COVID Policy is So Atrocious, Pregnant Reporter Was Forced to Turn to Taliban for Help

AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi

The pandemic has brought out some of the worst in civil liberties abusers, and from nations you might not expect it from, including New Zealand. So strict are quarantine laws, that a pregnant reporter, Charlotte Bellis, was forced to turn to the Taliban for help when she couldn't return home. New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told reporters last Tuesday that MIQ had offered a quarantine spot to Bellis, according to BBC News

Robertson denied that the move came as a result of attention surrounding her plight, though, and he instead credited staff dealing with such emergencies. Bellis' story did attract considerable media attention, though, which included an interview with Fox News' Dana Perino on "America's Newsroom."

She had also written a harrowing column for The New Zealand Herald. While Bellis thought she could not have children, she ended up conceiving a girl with her partner, Jim, a week after a press conference where she asked the Taliban "what will you do to protect the rights of women and girl?"

Bellis describes having to leave Qatar, where it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried. She was briefly in Belgium, but couldn't remain there because she did not have a visa. Bellis repeatedly tried to find a way to return home to New Zealand through their MIQ lottery program, with no luck. New Zealand was apparently going to open the border up to citizens. James was hoping to be able to get in in April.

But, there was a delay. And Bellis' application for emergency MIQ spots was rejected. 

Afghanistan was the other option, then, as that's where they had visas. Bellis was able to speak to her contacts with the Taliban and asked if she would have a problem if she came to Kabul. "No we're happy for you, you can come and you won't have a problem. Just tell people you're married and if it escalates, call us. Don't worry. Everything will be fine," a translator said. 

"When the Taliban offers you - a pregnant, unmarried woman - safe haven, you know your situation is messed up," Bellis so aptly wrote.

She goes on to write:

Soon after, the February border reopening was "delayed" and the lottery suspended. We were devastated. There was no way home other than to apply for emergency MIQ spots. We had read the horror stories of pregnant women being rejected, seen the statistics of just 5 per cent of Kiwis being approved if they are unable to stay in their current location and only 14 per cent being approved if there is a risk to their health and safety. We talked to Grounded Kiwis and lawyer Tudor Clee, who agreed to take our case pro bono and had a track record of helping pregnant Kiwis stuck abroad.

We got letters from New Zealand obstetricians and medical experts to confirm the dangers of giving birth in Afghanistan and the impact of high stress during pregnancy. We included ultrasounds, letters in support of our relationship, bank statements, our Covid vaccinations including boosters, evidence of my resignation and our travel itinerary since. Between Jim and I, we submitted 59 documents to MIQ and Immigration NZ, including a cover letter written by our lawyer summarising our situation.

On Monday, 24 January, we woke up to an email. We were rejected.

Firstly, because our travel dates were more than 14 days out – something we did purposefully because flights are difficult to get out of Kabul and to give us time to appeal if we were rejected. And secondly, because MIQ said "you did not provide any evidence" that "you have a scheduled medical treatment in New Zealand", that it is "time-critical" and that "you cannot obtain or access the same treatment in your current location".

Our current location being Afghanistan.

It finished with: we have "deactivated your application".

I had tried to prepare for this day. I thought I would cry, but I was in shock. I had done everything they asked. What was the threshold? What more can I do? How did they want me to prove that giving birth was a scheduled, time-critical medical treatment? Did they want me to be induced so there was a firm date? And how to prove that Afghanistan did not offer the same maternity care as in New Zealand? I thought about sending them a story I did in October at a maternity hospital in Kabul where they had no power so were delivering by cell phones at night. They couldn't do caesarean deliveries and the only medicine they had were tabs of paracetamol wrapped in crinkled newspaper. The hospital staff said even those would run out in a month's time. The UN wrote recently that they expect an extra 50,000 women will die during childbirth in Afghanistan by 2025 because of the state of maternity care. Note "extra" – the total will be closer to 70,000.

Here, getting pregnant can be a death sentence.

Bellis went on to share how her emergency application was being considered after all, after they received emails.

She still had strong words. Her closing paragraph, with added emphasis, is particularly powerful:

The morning we were rejected, I sobbed in my window overlooking Kabul's snow-covered rooftops. I wasn't triggered by the disappointment and uncertainty, but by the breach of trust. That in my time of need, the New Zealand Government said you're not welcome here. It feels surreal to even write that. And so, I cried. I thought, I hope this never happens again. I thought, we are so much better than this. I thought back to August, and how brutally ironic it was, that I had asked the Taliban what they would do to ensure the rights of women and girls. And now, I am asking the same question of my own Government.

The New Zealand Herald included some information from the New Zealand government, and it actually paints the country's protocols in a worse light. 

Head of MIQ Chris Bunny response seemed to try to communicate they were doing Bellis a favor, as he explained that team members emailed her back shortly after her application was denied, which "is not uncommon and is an example of the team being helpful to New Zealanders who are in distressing situations." He also went to call it "a fair and consistent process."

Then there's the "Emergency allocations process in MIQ":

New Zealand's a small country—we'll all know people who have struggled to return home.

We want every New Zealander who's currently abroad who wants to come home to be able to do so. However, we want them to come home to a safe New Zealand, in a safe way. Over the last two years our managed isolation system has been what has kept New Zealanders safe.

MIQ has been a success for New Zealand, helping to safely bring more than 218,000 people here in the midst of a global pandemic, as well as care for over 3600 community cases.

Every month in managed isolation we accommodate the equivalent of a small New Zealand town - around 12,600 people in 9000 rooms per 28 days.

There is finite capacity within the MIQ system though, and that's for good reason – Covid-19 is still spreading around the world, and we need to keep New Zealand safe. We constantly have to strike a balance between bringing people into New Zealand and protecting us all from Covid entering the community.

...

Managed Isolation and Quarantine is aware that travelling around the world right now is not simple or easy and acknowledges that there are many people in really difficult situations as a result of this global pandemic.

MIQ has an emergency allocation process which exists for limited situations which require urgent travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days. There are currently 400 rooms per fortnight set aside for those who need to travel urgently. This is a last resort option with a very high threshold.

All applications for emergency allocation places in managed isolation are assessed on a case-by-case basis, against a set criteria. These decisions are not easy ones to make and we are sympathetic to the distressing situations people applying for an emergency allocation are in.

To be eligible for an emergency allocation, the applicant must be legally entitled to enter New Zealand and the travel must be time-critical (within fourteen days of their intended date of departure). Evidence is required to support all applications to ensure a fair and consistent process.

Right now, MIQ is under pressure like never before and we are currently experiencing very high volumes of emergency allocation requests due to widespread travel disruption around the world.

As Eva Corlett reported for The Guardian, Bellis was approved to return to New Zealand in early March. Her request was approved because of risks with her location and not her pregnancy, despite how dangerous it is to give birth in Afghanistan. 

Corlett included parts of a statement from Bellis which noted "I will continue to challenge the New Zealand government to find a solution to border controls to keep New Zealanders at home and abroad safe and their rights protected."

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