What you need to know about doing the NZ Quarantine

Main photo Eunice Stahl on Unsplash

Plus tips for making it through MIQ without losing your mind. Robecca Leyden shares her experience.

The world was collectively caught by surprise by Covid-19. When it hit at the end of 2019, rapidly spreading from country to country, then between continents; no one expected they would be still dealing with the pandemic in ‘21. But here we are.

One of the many side-effects we’ve witnessed are the hundreds of thousands stranded abroad. This has left people in nightmare situations, trapped in foreign countries, funds dwindling and staring destitution in the face.  I watched as thousands of Australians were stranded overseas as their government closed its borders leaving citizens stranded for long periods of time. I was a Kiwi stuck in London. Luckily I possess a British passport – however, friends around me were panicking not knowing what the next week would bring for them. Would they be able to return home? Would they have a roof over their head? Airlines would advertise highly inflated flights and a couple days before they are set to leave, the flight is cancelled. With some airlines the wait to get reimbursed was up to 90 days. No one had any idea what was happening.

My Experience:

I was on my third cancelled flight, had at least two flights booked at a time, my savings were nearly gone and I still had no idea when I would actually get home – and I was one of the lucky ones.  I was staying in an airbnb who were lovely and told me to stay as long as I needed. I finally thought I had a flight that would go through and then the introduction of the MIQ came.

For those of you who don’t know what it is – it’s the system to book your two-week quarantine stay. After being reassured that once I had a ticket home, I would be able to get an MIQ space – I went to book and they had run out. I frantically looked for any surrounding dates but the next three weeks were booked up. I sat stunned because I had originally tried to leave in October, and now I wouldn’t get to see my family for Christmas. I decided to cut my losses and after a very teary phone call to Mum, I booked a flight and MIQ for New Year’s Eve. I knew I was one of the lucky ones – I had accommodation until I left London as well as enough money to survive and buy £1000 flights to New Zealand. I had read about the desperation of some Kiwis trying to get home who were facing homelessness in the harsh UK Winter. Although, to say I arrived in NZ mentally and emotionally drained would be an understatement.

An unexpected perk is that the flight home was quite pleasant. Every flight had to enforce social distancing so you got entire rows to yourself. Usually the 30-hour commute from London to Auckland is something to grimace about, but both flights were relaxing and comfortable with every airport I passed through – a ghost town.

The most terrifying part was arriving at Auckland Airport and immediately being hauled off to a quarantine location with no right to choose your destination. It might be another city, it might be an awful place, you just don’t know until you get there.

Instead of lazily walking through customs, then to the streets of Auckland – you’re ushered into a line. A long line overseen by members of the NZ Defence Force. It’s intimidating. You’re given a mask that’s the only regulation mask you can now wear. Nearly an hour passes. Finally, a desk with two people stationed at it comes into focus. They are telling passengers what bus to get on outside. My stomach drops at the terrifying prospect of being flown to another city where I would be completely alone. Being able to see my loved ones at least through a hole in a fence at 2 metres distance – was something I had been holding onto.

I get to the front and a woman points at me and says ‘these next three can go to The Stamford’ and writes on a clipboard. I exhale a breath I had been holding since the UK. I knew it was somewhere in downtown Auckland and I also knew that it was a 5-star hotel. I get on the bus, which in itself is strange because I feel like I’m in limbo. I’m looking at Auckland city through a window but I still haven’t touched the pavement since I left years ago. As the bus takes off, I look out the window and see a family who isn’t mine but they are waving and holding up signs for their daughter. They can only catch a glimpse of her as she gets on the bus, but the gesture makes me tear up. It’s such a Kiwi thing to do. I was home at last.

The hotel check-in process takes hours and is tedious. There is just line after line to get through and after two days of commuting all I want is a shower and a bed. The final line is to get a Covid test. Some people are nervous to take it, but as I had come from the UK it was my 4th time. I’m instructed that I will be confined to my room until the test comes back negative with results in 24 hours.

I get to my room and it’s a beautiful double bedroom with a huge bathroom including a bath, on the 7th floor. I feel both luck and relief. I look out at the now darkened skyrise and the feeling of limbo creeps back. I’m back in my home city, but I still only see it through glass.

Here’s the thing: No matter how nice your hotel is, how luxurious your room is, it’s NOT like taking a vacation. The French writer Michel Foucault once said, “The idea that someone is always watching is enough to imprison people mentally enough to keep them in line and following orders.“ This notion wasn’t lost on me as I sat in luxury. Being confined to a room, no matter how nice that room is, is still sitting in a room, incarcerated. Don’t let any internet troll tell you you’re wrong for stressing out at the idea of being locked in a hotel room 23 hours a day. It does feel like a prison. Especially when an announcement comes over a loudspeaker you didn’t even know was there; things start to feel Orwellian.

The last few days are the worst. Everyone I know who has had to quarantine says the exact same thing: the last 2-3 days drag on and cabin fever sets in. For me it was the lack of fresh air. I had no access to anything outside except for the car park visits. I started getting headaches and an overwhelming feeling of lethargy set in. It felt like jetlag on steroids.

 Tips for making it through MIQ without losing your mind:

  • When you’re booking your placement, it has to match your flight exactly. I was so desperate around Christmas I tried to make it work with my flight landing a day earlier. I could just sit in the airport and wait, I thought. But alas, I was given a hard no.
  • If you can’t get the spot you’re after, keep hitting refresh. So many people are just booking anything out of desperation and book more than one spot. Then once their 2-day holding spot is released, that spot is now up for grabs. It pays to sit at your computer and play refresh until you get the spot you want. I did this, and another friend did it and we both found our earliest spots that way.
  • I can’t say this enough: do not try and wing anything. They are so strict and check every document. If your flights don’t match your MIQ – you will not be leaving the first airport.
  • I know it’s difficult, especially with jet lag, but try to have some sort of sleeping routine. It’s so easy to fall into a depression as sleepiness sets in when you have no reason to get up. Before you know it, it’s 4am you’re wide awake, haven’t seen daylight or fresh air in days and are a walking headache. Try to get up at breakfast when they deliver it.
  • Spend as much time as you possibly can outside. Going out and walking around the carpark becomes old fast, trust me I get it, but try to do it at least once a day. If you’re in a high-rise hotel like I was, there are basically no opening windows. You need fresh air at least once a day. You need sunlight.
  • Pace yourself. It doesn’t help to be anxiously counting down the days – set yourself some tasks – books you’ve wanted to read, TV shows, make a journal.
  • Don’t feel bad about leaning into your people. I felt silly asking so much but having my family and my friends come to visit me every day helped SO much. Having someone bring my favourite coffee made me feel 100x better. Just getting to wave and then half/yell talk for 20 minutes made the isolation and boredom I was feeling melt away in those moments. These visits will also help give you some structure to your day.

The two most important things to remember: If the hotel you’re put in has poor conditions, you’re allowed to complain and ask for what’s appropriate. It’s not ok if you’re not getting enough food or the electricity is shut off. It’s a new situation and everyone is doing the best they can, so just speak up and ask for what you need. Secondly, it’s completely normal if your mental health is suffering and you absolutely should let someone know. They have on-site nurses and alternatively there is Lifeline or youthline.

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